Where we're going this evening - Italy
We're off to southern Europe, after our exotic trip to the Caribbean last week, and we are heading to the Mediterranean to see what we make of Italy.
Long, thin Italy is slightly larger than the UK with about the same population. Famously, it is shaped like a boot, facing West, ready to kick the island of Sicily lodged at its toe.
Like Egypt and Greece, Italy is another big-hitter in terms of history - the Romans came, saw and conquered the majority of Europe for the best part of 500 years. This is another organised and civilised people who brought many innovations to the lands which they overran and occupied.
The Roman Empire introduced road building, trade, art, culture, language, bathing houses and central heating over to the UK - but their civilising influence was not appreciated at the time and we took a technological step back several hundred years once they left our shores.
And although I suppose any invaders are not going to be welcomed with open arms, surely some of the Britons could have said, 'say what you like about those Romans, but they didn't half have some good ideas on roadbuilding/bath houses/military organisation...etc etc.'
Clever beggars, the Italians - not content with the whole Roman thing, they went on to produce the great explorer Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus; and then there was the whole renaissance movement with Bottecelli, then Michelangelo, and then the brilliant mind of Leonardo da Vinci.
Those Italian brains are still fizzing away today - in the rich industrial north of the country (all sharp suits and sex appeal) as well as the beautiful more agricultural south (all olive groves and siestas). Whatever the cultural variation, Italy has the bucketfuls of style in whatever they produce - car manufacturers include Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, Ducatti; appliance makers Zanussi and Smeg; designers Gucci, Prada, Dolce & Gabbana; then there is Lavazza coffee, Martini, and Pernod.
What is it about those Southern Europeans that makes them so darn sexy? The French were the same when we were over that way the other week. Famous Italians include Sophia Loren, Rudolph Valentino, Greta Scacchi and of course Cassanova; of Italian descent we have Frank Sinatra, Madonna and a great chunk of Hollywood A-listers.
I'm glossing over the less savory bits that Italy has given us - like Mussolini, the stereotyping of the Mafia, and of the less than heroic reputation in battle that the Italians seem to have acquired, and I think we should head straight for the food - so let's say ciao to Italy...
You can't think about Italy without thinking about the staple food of pasta. I did think about getting the seldom used pasta maker out to do things completely from scratch, but as I also wanted to make some time consuming bread and had some previously fresh lasagne sheets languishing in the freezer for far to long, the pasta maker has stayed in the cupboard.
Any of those rustic breads are pretty spot on, so that's an easy decision as an accompaniment, although any bread making I do tends to be via the breadmaker, so let's see how we get on.
Tiramisu is an easy decision, even without being leaned on by mum - I don't have a particularly sweet tooth, but at a restaurant, this is often my choice,. Lets see if we can recreate it here.
Lasagne - recipe from my head.
Brown mince & add veg to suit and tomatoes then simmer to make a bolognase sauce. Traditional veg are onion, garlic, basil then loads of tomatoes. Tonight's variation has a bit of bulgar wheat, onion, garlic, mushrooms and courgette along with the tomatoes (note: the reader may query the non-traditional inclusion of courgette - however, the vegetable gardener will quite understand that it being late summer, courgette is a standard ingredient in at least one dish of every meal. That includes breakfast).
Make a white sauce with butter, flour and milk then add plenty of cheese. Layer bolognase, pasta sheets & cheese sauce. End with cheese sauce - top with extra cheese & brown on top under the grill.
Fresh Bread in the Morning
Make a dough with strong white flour, oil, water, salt and yeast & leave to rise (note: I used the dough setting on the breadmaker). Knock back dough & knead till elastic & smooth. Pull out to a rectangle about half an inch thick (note: this is virtually impossible as the damn dough being nice and elastic springs back to where it was a minute ago). Poke depressions with fingers, drizzle with oil & oregano & leave to rise. Cook in a hot oven, then drizzle more oil & rocksalt & leave to cool (note: the cook who can 'leave to cool' has an unnatural level of will power.)
Tiramisu - recipe from bbc good food
Beat cream, caster sugar, marscarpone cheese & marsala to a whipped cream consistancy. Soak (breifly!) sponge fingers in strong coffee. Layer fingers, cream mix, grated choc, and again, ending with cream, choc & dredging of cocoa. Yum.
And what have we learnt?
- Bolognase goes a long, long way. A 9oz pack of lean mince has gone into six (greedy) portions of lasagne.
- As long as you have some meat and loads of chopped tomatoes, you can pretty much sneak anything into a bolognase.
- Although I cheated in part with making the bread, bread making from scratch is really scary ('Knead until smooth'. 'Leave until well risen'. These are just two of the bloody useless phrases I came across looking for my focaccia recipe) - although it did turn out good in the end. Not saying that the next one will though.
- Any recipe which starts with mixing cream, creamy cheese, sugar and alcohol, then includes biscuits and chocolate is pretty much guaranteed to be a winner.
- Another note to read recipes through in full before hand. In the time it takes to follow the instruction 'dip sponge fingers into coffee...', then turn back to read, '...until covered but not soggy', the sponge fingers are, indeed, soggy.
And out of 10?
- for the bolognase - a solid 8/10 - it's always a bit of a faff to make, with the meat sauce and the white sauce, and the layers, and the oven cooking afterward, but well worth it. Tasty and freezes well.
- for the focaccia - a tasty 7/10 - I'm still wary of bread from scratch - it's getting the knack of doing enough kneading & leaving it the right amount of time to rise properly. This was good, but it could easily all go wrong next time!
- a VERY, VERY good 9/10 for the tiramisu. Quick and easy to make, tastes brilliant - a real success.