Bread and Spinach Dumplings – Strangolapreti

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In contrast with today’s rampant carb-phobia, bread was considered for many centuries the most sacred of foods. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, bread was always a symbol of God’s generosity toward mankind and of the fecundity of the earth- it’s still the center of countless religious rituals, not to mention superstitions and everyday idioms.

As a consequence, in many cultures there was always a stigma associated with wasting it or throwing it out, not only among the poor, but even in wealthier households; which is how bread became the main protagonist of the history of sustainable cooking.

Growing up in Italy, I learned how to store bread in paper bags so it wouldn’t become moldy. Rather, it dried out: after a couple of days it could be soaked in water, milk or broth and turn into thick soups or bread cakes, or add fluffiness to meatballs. If we waited a bit longer, we would simply grate it into crumbs. Each region has its traditional recipes, but it was during my vacations in the Italian Alps that I discovered what became my personal favorite.

In northeastern Italy, mountains and glaciers soar to almost 13,000 feet, contributing to a panorama so majestic that some say it makes you feel closer to God. My dad loved rock-climbing, and ever since I was a little girl, he would take me along for his more leisurely hikes. This was our special time together, while my mom would wait for us down in the chalet because she suffers from vertigo! That would give her plenty of time to experiment with the local cuisine, which she learned from the local women, in particular the phenomenal Nonna Plava, an old lady who used to run a small hotel with her son and daughter-in-law, and loved sharing her recipes. One of the best is the Strangolapreti, gnocchi-size stale bread and greens dumplings that are served with melted butter and cheese.

In the Italian Alps, especially in the Trentino region, you can find many different versions of dumplings made from stale bread; the most famous are canderli (similar to knoedels, and to matzah balls), and strangolapreti.  This curious name, which literally means “priest-stranglers” (!) is also used to describe different types of pasta and dumplings in other regions. When I was little, I thought that the recipe must have been invented by some anti-clerical, communist grandmother!

I later learned that after the Council of Trent (1545-1563) prohibited the consumption of meat on Fridays, this became one of the traditional dishes for that day, and the legend goes that the clergy enjoyed it so much that they almost choked on it. Who could blame them? These dumplings are simply addictive, and I’ve risked the same fate more than once.

The most important thing to remember when making them (as with potato gnocchi) is to keep a light hand with the flour, and add it only a little at a time; if you add too much, rather than with priest-stranglers, you’ll end up with weapons.

Ingredients

  • 1 lb Swiss chard or fresh spinach, hard stems removed
  • 8 ounces stale bread, coarsely chopped in the food processor
  • 1 ½ cup  milk
  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 4 to 6 tbsp white flour
  • 2 pinches grated nutmeg
  • 1 tsp salt, or to taste
  • black pepper to taste
  • 4 to 6 tablespoons butter, or to taste
  • a few fresh sage leaves

Instructions

Place the bread in bowl, cover with the milk, and mix.

Bring a large pot of water to boil. Add salt and the greens, and blanch for about 3 minutes. Drain, and dip in ice water to preserve the green color. Drain and squeeze well trough a colander and chop finely.

Squeeze any excess milk out of the bread; combine with the greens, eggs, flour and nutmeg until the mixture holds; if necessary, add more breadcrumbs rather than flour, but the mixture should be very wet. On a floured surface, divide the dough into 5 pieces. Dust your hands with flour, and  roll the pieces into 1/2 inch thick logs. Cut the logs into 1-inch lengths, and place the dumplings onto a floured pan or parchment..

Bring a large pot of water to boil over high heat. Add salt, and cook the dumplings in batches without overcrowding them.  They are ready when they  rise to the surface; remove them with a slotted spoon, and place on a sheet pan (in a single layer).

Melt the butter in a skillet over medium high heat. Add the sage leaves and cook until the butter begins to brown. Remove from heat, toss the dumplings, and serve, garnishing with the whole sage leaves. Drizzle with remaining butter and top with little black pepper and abundant grated cheese.

Pumpkin Soup with Pomegranate and the meaning of Sukkot

Pumpkin and Pomegranate Cream Soup (Dairy)

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Sukkot is an eight-day harvest holiday that starts four days after the fast of Yom Kippur; it is also known as the Feast of Tabernacles.
In ancient Israel Jews would build huts (Sukkah = hut) near the end of their fields during harvest season, so that they could spend more time in the fields and harvest more efficiently. For us, Sukkot is a reminder of how our ancestors  lived while wandering in the desert for 40 years (Leviticus 23:42-43), moving from one place to another and using tents (sukkot) for temporary shelter. Associated with these two meanings are three  main traditions:

1 – Building a sukkah.
2 – Eating inside it.
3 – Waving the lulav and etrog.

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(above, Sukkot seen by Italian artist Emanuele Luzzati)

Between Yom Kippur and Sukkot , those observant Jews who have the space construct a sukkah in their backyards or decks (in cities like Manhattan or Venice with a lot of small apartments, it’s normal to just share meals in the synagogue’s sukkah). In ancient times most people would just “move” to their sukkas for the whole holiday and even sleep there: nowadays few do, especially in colder climates, but it’s still customary to eat meals in the hut, or at least snacks, reciting a special blessing.

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Since Sukkot celebrates the harvest, there is a custom of waving the etrog and lulav: (a kind of citron, similar to a big lemon/lime, and a bunch of myrtle,willow and palm twigs). The lulav and etrog are waved in all directions representing God’s power over the whole creation. All kids love decorating the sukkah with drawings, and mine are no exception!

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As a fall harvest holiday, Sukkot celebrates the bounty of the new crops, and its food traditions revolve around seasonal vegetables and fruit. In this sense, some believe that the pilgrims may have come up with the idea of Thanksgiving inspired by the Biblical descriptions of Sukkot: after all, the Puritan Christians had landed on American shores in search of a place where they would finallly be free to worship as they pleased – a recurrent theme in Jewish history. Besides, just like the ancient Israelites, the pilgrims also had to dwell in makeshift huts (built with the help of the Indians) during their first cold winter in Massachusetts!

That’s why so many of you, unfamiliar with Jewish traditions, will immediately notice how Thanksgiving’s culinary themes mirror those of Sukkot.

All kinds of  vegetables and fruit grace our tables, together with stuffed pies and pastries: stuffing one food inside another is in fact another metaphor for abundance. Many of these symbolic foods have already appeared on our Rosh haShana table, often in the form of a seder (served in a specific order and reciting blessings on each one).

Among these seasonal offerings, both the pumpkin and pomegranate stand out: in Venice we like our favorite local variety of pumpkin so much that we call it “suca baruca” (from the Hebrew “baruch”, “blessed / holy pumpkin”); as to pomegranate, it is so important in the Jewish tradition that Torah scrolls are decorated with silver ones – apparently because this fruit contains more or less 613 seeds, the number of the Mitzvot (commandments)  that Jews are given to observe.

Why not combine these two symbols into a super-pretty and super-festive soup?

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Ingredients (serves 4)

  • 2 lbs cubed pumpkin
  • 1 medium onion, very finely chopped
  • vegetable stock
  • 1/2 orange (or 1/3 cup orange juice)
  • 1 pomegranate (or 1/4 cup pomegranate seeds plus 1/3 cup pomegranate juice)
  • 3 tablespoons mild extra-virgin olive oil
  • salt and black pepper to taste
  • 2 or 3 tablespoons coarsely ground hazelnuts (optional)

Directions

Heat the oil in a pan, add the onion and allow it to cook until soft (add little water if it starts sticking). Add the pumpkin and allow it to cook for 5 minutes, stirring. Add the orange zest and 1/3 cup of pomegranate juice (you can skip the juice if you prefer a less tangy flavor and a lighter color). Keep cooking until the juice has evaporated, then add enough hot vegetable stock to barely cover the pumpkin, salt and pepper, and cook until very tender. (at least 30 minutes).
Process with a hand mixer; adding more salt and stock as needed, and pour into individual bowls; decorate with the hazelnuts (if using), a few pomegranate seeds and  salt. In the context of a dairy meal, you can decorate it with a little sour cream or Greek yogurt. Serve warm.

Fluffy Honey and Orange Cake

Fluffy Honey Cake (Dairy or Parve)

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In Italy, “Miele” (honey), is classified as compulsively as cheeses and olive oil – by area of origins, type of flower, and depending on whether pieces of honeycomb were included… we have strawberry-tree (corbezzolo) and Eucalyptus honeys from Sardinia, chestnut honey from Piedmont, millefiori (thousand flowers) from Tuscany, orange blossom from Sicily, acacia from the Pre-Alps, and many more. Every fall, I take a trip to Zebar’s or Eataly where I stress out about which kind will grace my cake this Rosh HaShana!

Rather than blaming this on my all-Italian obsession with ingredients, you should try for yourselves! After all, when the Almighty promised our forefathers that they would be freed from Egyptian bondage, the Promised Land was described as “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus. 3: 17, etc.) – and not with “milk and sugar”!

In this cake, the orange balances out any excessive sweetness of the honey.

Ingredients

  • 4 medium/large eggs, separated
  • 3/4 cup oil (canola oil or 1/2 light olive 1/2 almond oil)
  • about 300 gr (3/4 a medium/large jar) liquid honey
  • 1/2 cup potato starch
  • 1 1/2 cup 00 or all-purpose flour
  • 2 tbsp orange liqueur (like triple sec) or brandy
  • zest of one organic orange
  • 1/4 cup of the orange juice
  • 1 package (16 g) baking powder
  • a pinch of salt

Directions

Using a hand mixer, beat the yolks with the honey until frothy and thick (about 3 minutes). Very slowly add the oil, and beat until creamy. Add the honey, the potato starch, orange zest and the liqueur. Now add the flour (mixed with the baking powder) a bit at a time, alternating it with the orange juice.

In a separate, clean and degreased bowl, or in your stand mixer, beat the whites with a pinch of salt until stiff. Now combine the egg whites with the batter, with the help of a spatula, using upward movements.

Pour into a 9.5″ or 10″ Savarin or bundt pan (well greased and dusted with flour). Since honey cakes tend to darken more than sugar-based ones, I prefer these cake pans, with a hole, because the inside will cook faster, before the outside has time to darken. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 350 F for about 30-35 minutes, or until done when tested with a toothpick. To keep the color lighter, you can cover with aluminium foil for the last 10 minutes of baking.


Quince Paste for Rosh HaShana

Cotognata (Sweet Quince Paste) (Parve)

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Quinces are from the same family as apples and pears. They are much uglier than both, and they taste horrible when eaten raw (I tried!). Feed them to the geese? Think again: as usual, our great-great-great grandmothers were able to turn even this ugly-duckling of a fruit into a delicious treat. So delicious, in fact, that many communities in Italy and elsewhere eat them instead of apples and honey as Tapuach, the first element in our Rosh HaShana seder symbolizing a sweet new year.
(Other Italian traditions begin with dates – in Aramaic,Temareh – for the first blessing, and conclude with figs, apples or quinces).
I hope you try this easy recipe and offer it next to your apples and honey. You will understand why, when quinces were still hard to come by in Manhattan stores, a friend of mine’s 80-year-old Italian grandmother (who shall go unnamed) would be found climbing up the trees in the garden of the Cloisters in Upper Manhattan before Rosh HaShana. We saw her in action and she was quite agile.

Ingredients
- 2 pounds quinces
- 1 and 1/2 pound sugar
- 1 organic lemon
- 4 or 5 cloves

Directions
Clean the quinces, eliminating all the fuzz and any parts that are damaged..
Cook them in a pot of boiling water with half an organic lemon and the cloves.
When they are as soft as boiled potatoes (about an hour) drain them, discarding the lemon and cloves and setting aside about a ladleful of the cooking water.
Halve the quinces and allow them to cool off; then peel them, eliminate the cores, and reduce them into a smooth puree using a food mill or an electric mixer.
Combine this puree with the sugar and 1/2  a ladleful of the cooking water. Cook on low heat for about an hour, stirring regularly. The paste is ready when it sticks to the spoon.
Wet a large cutting board or your countertop, and pour the cotognata on top, forming an even 1/2-inch
layer.. After it has started to dry, you can cover it with parchment paper. After at least 24 hours (48 is better), cut into shapes with cookie cutters.

Minestrone – Italian Vegetable Soup

S 55 01 STEP 1 MINESTRONE

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The word minestrone derives from the Latin verb  ministrare, which means ‘to administer’.
Maybe because, as any Italian mother can witness, it is the most efficient way to administer lots of healthy vegetables to picky children, with few complaints!

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In many households, minestrone is made at least weekly and (thanks to the fact that it tastes even better when reheated), served several times as a primo piatto (first course) with both dairy and meat meals. I usually serve it plain on the first day; on the second day, I reheat it with some leftover cooked rice, pasta or even spelt. If it’s cold outside, or I’m simply too busy for multiple courses, I just throw in some beans to transform this light soup into an earthy meal. At the end of the week I add a boiled potato and turn the leftovers into a creamy passato (blended soup) with my hand blender.

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Just keep in mind, if you plan on stretching your soup over the course of a week, that you should skip tomatoes or it will spoil too quickly. In Italy we have countless regional and seasonal variations for this soup, depending on the local produce! Just to give you a few examples, the Genoese minestrone is flavored with pesto; my Tuscan grandmother liked to add rosemary, and the Lombard one preferred Arborio rice in it.

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The only key rules are that all the ingredients should be very fresh and the oil high quality; the soup should be cooked very slowly, on low heat; and finally, the vegetables should be chopped very small, Israeli salad-style…. other than that, have some fun!

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Ingredients (serves 8-10 as an appetizer, 6-8 as a main course)

  • vegetable stock, 1 1/2 quarts
  • 2 whole cloves garlic (optional)
  • 1 onion
  • 2 carrots
  • 6 leaves of kale or Swiss Chards, chopped
  • 1 large slice of butternut squash or pumpkin
  • 1/2 a small cabbage (1/4 if large)
  • 2 celery stalks
  • 2 small (or 1 large) zucchini
  • 1 cup peas
  • OR asparagus tips, or green beans
  • 1 small or medium potato (optional)
  • 1 medium tomato, seeded (optional)
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • extra-virgin olive oil (I use a low-acidic, mild Ligurian or Tuscan)
  • fresh rosemary or parsley, if liked
  • (tip: if you rarely make it to the green market…. it does work even with frozen vegetables!)

Peel the carrots and potatoes with a vegetable peeler and wash and clean all the vegetables, discarding any outer leaves and inedible parts. On a chopping board, cut all the vegetables into regular dice max 1/2″ (except for the peas, obviously). In a large pot with a heavy base, heat 2 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil. Add the minced onion and the whole garlic cloves and cook until the onion is translucent. Discard the garlic (if using – I usually don’t),  add the vegetables and little salt, and cook for another 5 to 10 minutes on medium/low heat, making sure they don’t burn or change color. Cover the vegetables with the vegetable stock and cook, in a partially covered pot and on low heat, for about an hour or until the vegetables are  soft and the liquid has absorbed all their flavor. If using asparagus tips, add them later, about 15 minutes from the end. If you are pressed for time, you can also cook minestrone in a pressure cooker (it should take less than 15 minutes). When ready, pour into individual bowls, drizzle with some more extra-virgin olive oil and sprinkle with a touch of freshly ground black pepper. It also tastes great with some freshly grated parmigiano on top, if you are in the mood for cheese!.

Grandma’s Eggplant and Apple Jam

S 01 02 I MARMELLATA DI MELE E MELANZANE

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Few things are more American than a PB & J sandwich. However, jelly itself has been a staple all over the world since antiquity, when someone figured out that even quince (a fruit that looks like an ugly apple, and that’s too hard to be eaten raw) could taste delicious when slow-cooked with honey (incidentally, the word Marmalade derives from the Portuguese Marmelo (quince). Unlike our American children, spoiled by constant sugary snacks, it seems that people back then actually PREFERRED fresh fruit, because they didn’t attempt to make jelly with anything other than quince for centuries!

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It was the Persians or the Arabs, who had been producing sugar from cane, who finally came up with the idea of syrup and started using it to manufacture various preserves, experimenting with pectic fermentation and creating the first citrus fruit marmalades. With the conquest of Spain, Portugal and Southern Italy, the Arabs introduced all their confections, changing the European palate forever, much to the joy of children and… dentists.

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Preserving fruit or vegetables in syrup, just like drying or pickling, also prolonged their shelf life; this became critical in the Age of Discovery, starting in the 15th century, for the sailors, merchants and pirates (!) who had to spend months at sea with no access to fresh produce.

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However, jam makes me think of far more familiar adventures, such as climbing up my grandmother’s fig, apple and peach trees as a child. I didn’t mind a scraped knee if I could feel that I was part of our little production line: I picked the fruit, nonna stirred the jam, my mom (the pharmaceutical chemist) jarred it, and my dad kept stealing spoonfuls from the pot.

INGREDIENTS:

  • 3 pounds small (Japanese) eggplants
  • 3 small golden delicious apples (or 2 large)
  • 1 medium orange
  • 1 organic lemon
  • 6 cups sugar

DIRECTIONS:

peel the eggplants, cut them in 2-3 pieces each, and pierce them with a fork. Place them in a bowl of salted water for 1 hour. Rinse and cover with fresh, unsalted water. Let rest for another hour. Drain and lace in a large (it will froth up like crazy) copper or stainless steel pot, with the peeled and sliced apples, and the orange and lemon juice and zest. Add the sugar and 2-3 tbsps water,bring to a boil, and cook on low heat, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes. remove from the heat and pass through a food mill or sieve 9even a potato masher will do!). return to the pot and simmer for 30 more minutes, or until it has thickened. Pour into sterilized glass jars and close them tightly. Store in a cool, dark place.

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Gratin Tomatoes

POMODORI RIPIENI

Ask any Southern Italian, or Italian American, to imagine cooking without the color and the fragrance of tomato, and they will probably tell you it’s impossible.

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However, the use of tomato spread in European kitchens fairly recently: although it was first introduced in the 16th century, the vast majority of people treated it as a pretty, but possibly poisonous, decorative plant for at least the next two hundred years. In Peru, Mexico and Chile, where it originated from, the natives also treated it as unedible.

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While nobody was stirring Marinara, alchemists were concocting plenty of potions featuring the new fruit, which was believed to have aphrodisiac powers when ingested in small amounts. This accounts for the romantic names the plant was given, from England and France (Love Apple, Pomme d’Amour) to Italy Pomo d’Oro, Golden Apple) .

It’s still unclear where and when, in Baroque Europe, someone first tasted the mysterious fruit. Maybe it was a brave and hungry farmer in Southern Italy, in times of famine. Maybe the Sephardic merchants of Livorno, who had first imported the seeds (this may be the reason why many tomato-based local dishes are called “Jewish-style” or “Moses-style”). Or it could have been a bored aristocrat in France, where tomatoes were only eaten at the Royal Court until well into the 18th century.

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In any case, once Europeans actually bit into it, there was no way back! According to Neapolitan screenwriter Luciano De Crescenzo, “ The discovery of tomato represented, in the history of food, a revolution comparable to what the French Revolution constituted in social history”.

Gratin Tomatoes

Ingredients

  • GRATIN TOMATOES
  • 8 medium tomatoes, firm (on the vine)
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil plus more for brushing
  • 1 1/2 cup to 2 cupsplain bread crumbs
  • 4 tbsps freshly chopped parsley, or 1 tbsp dried oregano
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 3-4 minced anchovies (oil-packed, or salt-packed and rinsed) (optional)
  • salt to taste (1/2 teaspoon or less)
  • black pepper
  • pine nuts, olives or basil leaves to decorate

Directions

Cut the tomatoes in half horizontally, scoop out the seeds and pulp, sprinkle the inside with salt and drain upside down for 30+ mins. Save the pulp.

In a food processor, mince the garlic, anchovies and herbs, and blend with the tomato pulp that you had set aside. Add the olive oil and the bread crumbs. Add the bread crumbs gradually and stop once the mix holds together without being too firm.

Stuff the tomatoes with the mixture, brush the top with little more oil, and bake for 35-40 minutes in a pre-heated 400 F oven.

http://dinnerinvenice.com/2012/06/28/gratin-tomatoes-12/

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Lemon and Lavander Tart

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Lemon Lavander Tart by DinnerInVenice

“Nothing is more memorable than a smell. One scent can be unexpected, momentary and fleeting, yet conjure up a childhood summer beside a lake in the mountains; another, a moonlit beach; a third, a family dinner of pot roast and sweet potatoes during a myrtle-mad August in a Midwestern town” (Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses).

One of my first olfactory memories features a lemon lavender crostata, baked by my grandmother on a summer afternoon about four decades ago.

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When we think of lavender fields, most of us conjure up images of Provence: maybe because they were often depicted by French impressionists. However, this plant (a member of the same family of savory herbs which also includes sage, thyme, and oregano) is cultivated all over the world, from England to Brazil, from Russia to Japan and new Zealand – and of course, Italy.

My grandmother lived in Pistoia, a town about 30 minutes North-West of Florence and just over one hour drive from the Chianti region, with its stunning landscapes of rolling hills lined with cypress trees, vineyards alternating with olive groves and (surprise!) lavender fields, in a patchwork of incomparable natural beauty. That’s exactly where my parents and I picked our flowers, and finally (after a generous tip to the farmer) we were allowed to leave with a large bundle.

Unfortunately, I also came back with a giant bee sting that was promptly treated by the local pediatrician, Dottor Federico: lush lavender shrubs are in fact always humming with fuzzy bees, and the product of this romantic relationship is the most elegant of all honeys.

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My grandmother was never a remarkable  cook or baker, but somehow this particular tart, made using her next-door neighbor’s recipe, and almonds and lemons from her own orchard, came out so delectable that it was physically gone in five minutes – and that its exquisite memory lingered on for more than forty years. More than a memory, I should call it my summer obsession: every time I have been able to get my hands on dried lavender, I have made something sweet with this combo – from cookies to gelato, from trifle to frozen lemonade.

This year, after purchasing a bundle of over-priced flowers at L’Occitane, it’s lavender crostata time again!

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Ingredients:

  • 1 disc puff pastry or short pastry, home made or purchased
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 3/4 cup (heaped) sugar
  • 1/4 cup (heaped) potato starch
  • 2 1/4 cups 2 % milk
  • juice of 2 small lemons, or 1 large lemon
  • zest of 1 organic lemon
  • 2 teaspoons dried lavender

Grease a springform pan (about 9″ to 9 1/2″) and line the bottom with parchment. Preheat your oven to 400 degrees if using puff pastry, 360 if using short pastry.

Roll out pastry and transfer pastry to the prepared springform pan, trimming edges using a paring knife

Prepare the custard: beat the egg yolks with the sugar until foamy. Add the lemon zest and juice.

Dissolve the potato starch into the warm milk, adding little milk at a time. Once combined, add it to the egg mix. Cook in a Bain Marie over low heat, whisking frequently, until the custard thickens. Add 1 teaspoon dried lavender blossoms/petals to the custard.
Pour the custard into the crust, and sprinkle a little more lavender on top. Bake at  400 (for puff) or 360 (for pastry dough) for 30 to 45 minutes or until the crust is golden. You can also use mini-pans and make individual size tartelettes.

Shabbat Meals: Red Mullet Livornese-Style

4103 TRIGLIE ALLA MOSAICA

… and the Cosmopolitan Cooking of the Jews of Livorno.

This article and recipe appeared in The Jewish Forward.

Click here to view it.

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