Torta Greca and Mantova

Mantova in the Lombardy region of Italy. Three years ago our family played host to a delightful young lady from this area so a trip to Italy would not have been complete with paying a visit to her and her beautiful family.

Mantova is an amazing medieval town which is unspoilt by tourism. Wandering through the cobblestone streets we marvelled at the architecture and the embellishment of the buildings.

I only wish we had more time to spend in this hidden gem.

Of course, I couldn’t help but take in the delights of the town’s foodie famous crumble cake, Sbrisolona. Have a look under the torta at the beautiful handmade filled fresh pasta.

Returning to the family home in the outskirts of Mantova in Castellucchio we were treated to a wonderful afternoon “snack” or merenda of delicious salami and local bread. Sitting quietly and proudly at the end of the table was a humble cake with light dusting of sugar. Naturally I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to sample this torta which did not disappoint. And who could leave without the recipe? Our gracious host assured me the recipe which came when I arrived back in Australia.
We had a whirlwind tour of Mantova but I know we will return. What a treasure!

Here is the recipe as supplied by our lovely host. Thank you, Katia!

Torta Greca

160 grams of flour
100g butter
150 g sugar
3 eggs
100g amaretti
70-100 g dark chocolate
100 gr almonds
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
1 packet of baking powder or 2 teaspoons of baking powder


Mix butter and sugar then add the eggs, crushed amaretti biscuits, almonds and chocolate flakes.
Finally add the vanilla, baking powder, flour and mix.

Bake for about 30-35 minutes in the oven
at 160 ° C.

Torta Greca translates to Greek cake but why it is named I don’t know. Katia, the supplier of the recipe, suggests that the baking tin can be lined with puff pastry before pouring in the batter and baking as per the recipe. Certainly if you google “Torta Greca” you will find many versions of the pastry encased torta. In this case I have baked it as Katia did – without the pastry.

This is a typical, delcious Italian torta which I love in all it’s unadorned beauty. Enjoy it with a great espresso.

Bagna Càuda in the countryside of Piedmont

It was misty and foggy the day we arrived in Camagna Monferrato, Piedmont, Italy. At midday the mist still hadn’t lifted but this made for a beautiful vista across the countryside. Camagna Monferrato is a little village in the heart of Piedmont from where my husband’s family originates and it was with great emotion that he took his first glimpse of the oft’spoken village. 

The landscape in this part of Italy is truly beautiful. I could never get tired of looking our my window at this sight! With its cool climate and history undiscovered it is a pleasure to spend time wandering in these parts. Part of the Monferrato region which also comprises of the provinces of Asti and Alessandria, this area is renowned for its red and sparking white wines. However, in our travels we noticed that much of the vineyards had been abandoned. We were told that, as in many places, the farmer was not making a living growing grapes and many have left for secure jobs in the city. These villages are now home to only a select few residents.
Camagna still has a wonderful bakery, of which we had a personal tour, that bakes amazing bread and a store full of everything you could need.

We had a whirlwind two days with cousin Renato and Carla enjoying their company, the sights and Carla’s wonderful food. Traditional cusine of this area includes delicous pastas, meats, cheeses and vegetables. One of the most noteworthy and well known is Bagna Càuda. This is a delicous anchovy and garlic warm dip that we regularly enjoy thousands of kilometres away in Australia. Not for the diet conscious this dip includes a generous amount of butter and oil and is served with a range of vegetables for dipping.
 Of course, Carla treated us with her Bagna Càuda not as a dip but as a sauce adorning ripe, red capscium.

Bagna Càuda can be varied to suit your taste but remember it is not meant to be a mild flavour, it is supposed to tantilise the taste buds with abundant robust flavours. 
I hope you try and bring a little piece of Piedmont into your home.
Bagna  Càuda 
(as a sauce to coat vegetables)
8 cloves garlic, finely chopped
100ml olive oil
100g butter
140g anchovies

Place the oil and garlic into a cold pan and place over a gentle flame to allow the garlic to soften but not colour, it should take 10 or 15 minutes.

Add the butter and continue cooking over a gentle flame.

Add the anchovies.

Allow the anchovies to melt and meld into the sauce, all the while over a gentle flame.

Have ready some lightly steamed vegetables, in my case red capsicum, and pour the sauce over.
Serve with plenty of crusty bread to mop up your plate.

Piemonte and Bunèt for dessert

Family is a treasure.
Even more so when they live half way around the world and welcome you with open arms.
That was our experience when we traveled to Italy last year.
Family in all the corners of Italy opened their homes and hearts to us. Though we are in regular contact via email, skype or facebook it had been a very long time since we had seen each other and some not at all. 
Here in Guarene, Marina and her family treated us to delicious meals, wonderful sights, laughs and long chats.
Throughout Piedmont we were treated to thin slices slices of salami, fresh typical cheeses from Piedmont, roasted capsicum, pastas, the parsley condiment, bagnet, crostini, savoury torta’s, anchovies and much more. Desserts were a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach – regular and chocolate Tiramisu, Zeppole di san Giuseppe and Bunèt. Bunèt is a dessert I have never heard of but I’m told it is a very old traditional Piemonese recipe.  Absolutely delectable, the bunèt
 can be thought of as a creme caramel flavoured with chocolate and amaretti biscuits.
As with many Italian recipes, this one uses a “glass” as a measurement. I’m never very sure how much it is exactly. It just goes to show how here in Australia we are so precise about measurements and the “exact” science of baking whereas in Italy cooking and baking is much more relaxed and instinctive. I used about
 2/3 of a cup of marsala – probably too much but it worked and it’s delicous! 
This is Marina’s recipe. I have been waiting all year to bring this one to you. It is delicate but full of flavour. An impressive dessert!

3/4 of a litre whole milk
200 grams of Amaretti, ground until smooth
30 grams of cocoa powder
200 grams of sugar
5 eggs
1 egg yolk
1 glass of Marsala wine (or cognac or liqueur amaretto) 

Marina says that the Bunèt is the ancient pudding. The word means “cap” (in Piedmont) because the copper mold that once used to cook it looked very much like a cap. Over the years the recipe has evolved and now includes chocolate which once wouldn’t have been used.

A caramel needs to be prepared with 200g sugar and a couple of tablespoons of water. Dissolve sugar over low heat then bring to boil and allow to caramelise.

Use this caramel to line the base of a large loaf tin.

Boil the milk, add cocoa and sugar. Mix then allow to cool. ( I add the cocoa while the milk is warm so that it mixes in well)

Mix by hand ground amaretti,  eggs, liquor, milk mixture.
Pour into a mold which has already been coated in the caramelized sugar.
Put to cook in a water bath for 40 minutes at 180 °.
When it is cooled put it in the fridge for a few hours or overnight.

Upturn onto a serving platter…

…and serve in generous slices.

Italian Dream – Part 3 and the end!

Our dream holiday in Italy finished up in the south visiting relatives in Reggio di Calabria and Scilla with a brief visit to Sicily. The contrasts in one country which is very small compared to Australia, is absolutely amazing! In the places that we visited in the south it was all about the beach, the sea and what comes from it. Actually, very much like tropical, coastal North Queensland where we live.
But first no visit could begin without copious amount so delicious food!
And a passeggiata along the Reggio di Calabria’s esplanade – Lungomare.
Then off to Sicily and her sights with Mt Etna keeping a watchful eye on us the whole time.
The church of the Madonna della Rocca.
In downtown Taromina I ogled the shop windows wondering how much I would be able to bring back to Australia
Could I really return with a suitcase full of food?
Back to the mainland and off to the gorgeous fishing village of Scilla.
How lucky my cousin is to wake up every morning to the sights and sounds of Scilla.
Everything about Scilla is fascinating.
A seafood feast to round off our visit to the south was a wonderful celebration of the fruits of the sea.
Plate after plate of seafood came from the restaurant kitchen – what a splendor!
Finally an emotional visit to the church where over 50 years ago my parents were married
 – Chiesa di St Antonio, Reggio di Calabria.
Our dream is accomplished.
 Arriverderci Italia – until we meet again.

Italian Dream Part 2

Our Italian Dream continued in Venice.
The Mouth of Truth – the political history of Venice is intriguing.
As we cross the Bridge of Sighs we glimpse the canal below and
imagine  the heavy heart of the prisoner of days gone by.
Yes, we had to do the gondola trip!
Florence welcomes us with a delicious pizza…
…and glorious sights!
Pisa was crowded but the Baptistry, Basilica and Tower were impressive.
Oh yes, we have arrived in Rome!
Trevi was spectacular!
A side trip to Assisi proved a favourite all around…mmmm!
I have no words. Assisi is more gorgeous…
….and much more spiritual than we could have anticipated.
The majestic St Peter’s Basilica
In Pompeii, Mt Vesuvius still seems to loom over the area.
Back in Rome we visit Pizza Navona for some delicious roasted chestnuts.
And can’t resist the pastries in the shop window.
Mmmm, this cherry slice was to die for!
A short walk to Campo dei Fiori we found a plethora of goodies for the kitchen.
I didn’t know there were so many varieties of sun dried tomatoes!
Spices of every colour and perfume.
A taste for everyone.
Fresh salad ingredients ready for the table.
Sweet fruit!
Have you ever tried uva fragola – strawberry grapes?
A serious taste sensation.
Pasta, pasta everywhere!
I’d be happy to received this bunch of chillies!
Just a little more to go.
Join me soon for peek at Reggio di Calabria, Scilla e Sicily!

Italian Dream – Part 1

Do you believe that dreams do come true?
Is it possible to turn dreams into reality?
I wasn’t so sure until just recently when we made the decision to visit Italy.
Travelling to Italy from where I live in Australia is a 23 hour flight plus time at airport stopovers. This was all made longer when we where held up on the highway for 5 hours due to a tragic road accident.
And so it was, that myself, my husband and two teenage children set foot on the homeland of our parents and grandparents.
Landing at Milano Malpensa airport we were whisked away by my dear cousins to their hometown of Torino.
Our first visit the next morning was at the majestic Basilica di Superga which overlooks the city.
During a morning walk we came across a couple who had been out early to collect wild mushrooms. Just look at the size of them!
Always elusive as to the actual location of these their prize, the pickers simply said they picked them “in the mountains”.
How lucky we were to visit our cousins and be welcomed into their homes. Our greatest pleasure was to savour the delights of the home cooking such as the delicious zeppole di san Giuseppe prepared by my wonderful aunt.
Our first pizza in Italy was in Torino and what a treat it was!
It wasn’t long before we moved on from Torino. On our way we stopped at the amazing Palazzina di caccia di Stupinigi – originally the hunting lodge of the Savoy royal family in Nichelino south of Torino.

Soon we arrived at the home of our cousins in Guarene – 45 km southeast of Torino.
Just in time for lunch!
Prosciutto cotto and prosciutto crudo.
A delight!
Toma cheese dressed with “bagnet” verde – an italian salsa verde particular to the Piedmont area.
A feast for the eyes as well as the stomach – roasted capsicum of various colours.

After lunch we emerge from the house to take in our surrounds – this was the view!
Guarene is a gorgeous medieval village.

Surrounding towns include Asti and Alba.
The window displays were just too much for me to resist!
A short drive took us to the home town of my husband’s grandparents – Camagna Monferrato.
This picturesque village is now home to only a few residents and I think we were related to all of them!

 My husband loved chatting to the locals in the dialect he learnt as a child.
The tranquil view from the window of our dear cousins in Camagna Monferrato
Not far is the town of Conzano, sister city of our hometown in Australia and look what we found!
I love the beautiful town of Casale Monferrato where we sampled the local speciality Krumiri – a simple cookie invented over 100 years ago and still made to the original secret recipe.

Moving to the region of Emilia-Romagna to Piacenza, my father’s home town we visited Castell’Arquato. This medieval town has kept its original appearance since the early 10th century.
And the local council workers even use authentic equipment alongside more modern equivalents.
In Mantova myself, my daughter along with my cousin met up with the exchange student we had hosted several years ago and her mum in their home town.

Sbrisolona in the bakery window in Mantova. I had baked this after being given the recipe by our sweet exchange student during her stay.

This is where I will leave you for today.
I hope you enjoyed this first taste of Our Italian Dream.

Fig Tarte Tatin?

I purchased the most wonderful farm, fresh figs on the way home from our holiday – some for myself and some for my sister. So thrilled I was with my purchase that I sat smugly in the car all the way home with a silly grin on my face. You see, living the hot, tropical climate of North Queensland we eat mountains of mangos, lychees, bananas, snake beans and other tropical fruit and vegetables but cooler climate foods are only generally available at supermarkets and grocery stores. Often they have travelled from all of the country and are not worth the price you have to pay. However, three farmers on the Atherton Tablelands have recently branched out into figs with great results. The Tablelands being much cooler than the coast are able to grow many different types of foods.

Once home with my wonderful produce, I pondered my choices and immediately decided to caramelize my figs. These were wonderful with rich vanilla icecream – so luscious!But lets take it one step further and produce a “tarte tartin”. Now, I know the purists will lament that this is not a true “tarte tartin” and sure, the lack of puff pastry certainly attests to the fact. However, preparing home made puff pastry in our tropical heat is only for the very brave! So, ahead we go with a very short buttery pastry that melts in your mouth and what ever it is, I can guarantee that it is devine! You might like to try it.

Melt 60g butter and 90g brown sugar in a small frying pan. Once it’s bubbling cook over medium heat 5 minutes. Arrange about 600g halved figs in one layer in the pan. Cook for 10 minutes turning once during that time. Remove the figs to an 20cm pie plate cut side down. The figs should still be holding their shape but have started to soften and their juices should be released. Reduce the sauce to thicken. It should only take 5 or 10 minutes.

Pour the sauce over the figs. Don’t they look like shiny golden, brown jewels?

Now make the pastry. Take 250g plain flour and 60g castor sugar, rub in 185g butter or process in the food processor until the mixture looks crumbly. Stir in 1 beaten egg. Roll out larger than your pie plate so you can tuck the sides in. Then chill the pastry for 15minutes. Lay the pastry over the figs like a blanket. Now this is rustic. It’s not meant to look perfect. Tuck it in and don’t worry too much. Bake at 200C for 15 minutes then lower to 18oC for 10 minutes until the pastry is nicely browned.

Allow your tarte tartin to cool for about 5 or 10 minutes then carefully take a large flat plate place it over the pie dish and invert the tarte tartin onto your plate.

Voila`! There you have it – a Fig “Tarte Tartin” with melt-in-your-mouth pastry and sweet, delicious figs nestled in sticky caramel sauce. A perfect way to honour this special, ancient fruit.
Now, what did my sister produce with her cache of figs?

Fig and Chocolate sauce with hint of cloves and all the flavour and richness that you would expect from such a combination. The recipe? Well, that’s her secret!

My “Spanakopita”

Recently my family and I spent a relaxing week in the tropical northern city of Cairns. As we often do, we took the long way home, which means a drive up to the Atherton Tablelands. It is a beautiful area reminicent of the rolling hills of Tasmania, New Zealand or some have said England. It is also a food bowl for North Queensland producing fabulous dairy products, fruits and vegetables, peanuts, sugar cane, wines and coffee. We always pick up something delicious. At the Big Peanut Fruit stall we stopped for the obligatory bag of hot roasted peanuts. This time we chose the smoked variety. Munching and enjoying the view we came across a hand drawn sign that simply said “FIGS” and after following a dirt road past lychee, mango and fig trees we came across the farm house. Beautiful, plump, purple figs, rare for our part of the world, were for sale for $10 per kilo. Really, a steal. I bought a few kilos for myself and a few for my sister. Hubby patiently emptied the esky so that the figs had pride of place. Finally we made a stop a the Mungalli Creek Dairy to pick up some fresh cheeses before the drive south.

I chose a beautiful whole milk ricotta and award winning fetta which I knew were destined for spanakopita. I have been making spanakopita for years and always form the same spiral shape. I am not Greek and do not claim to make a traditional Spanakopita but what I do make is delicious and my family enjoy it and I’d like to share it with you.

It’s not so much a recipe, as maybe a method and I often don’t really measure but make do with the quantities I have so I’ll do my best to give measurements. Please, don’t feel that you are bound by measurements – this is not an exact science as it would be if you were making a sponge cake!

Have your oven preheated to 180C then take a brown onion and 3 cloves garlic, chop finely and saute in some olive oil until golden. Cool. Now you’ll need some spinach. If you can buy fresh spinach (I can’t!), remove the stalks and steam. Then squeeze out as much moisture as you can. Moisture is the enemy of spanakopita – if there can be one – because it will result in soggy pastry. If you can only purchase frozen spinach (that’s me!) defrost and squeeze out the moisture. I know, frozen isn’t the best but if that’s all one can buy…… Ok, now you want a quantity, well about 330 g of cooked, squeezed spinach. Now chop it a bit and mix it with the cooled onion mixture, 325g ricotta, 300g crumbled fetta, about a cup of chopped flat leaf parsley, 4 or 5 tablespoons of grated parmesan or romano cheese, grated nutmeg, 3 beaten eggs, pepper and maybe a little pinch of salt, remembering that the fetta is in brine! It should look a bit like this.

Then you’ll need a 500g packet of fillo pastry, preferably not the frozen type. Follow all the rules for fillo, you know, work quickly and keep the fillo covered with a clean towel. Take 4 sheets of fillo brushing with olive oil between each sheet. Spoon about 1/5 of the mixture along the long side, roll up and twist into a coil on a large oil baking tray. Don’t panic if it splits a little – this is rustic, traditional cooking! Continue this way until you have used up all the mixture and your spanakopita looks like a large coiled sausage. Now, beat another egg and add a pinch of salt. Brush with the egg getting into all the joins. Make sure to use all of the egg. Bake it for about an hour by then it should be crispy brown all over and the gorgeous smell should be invading your house. Now you know it’s ready. Let it cool a little to set then cut it into generous wedges and enjoy!

Oh, you may be wondering what I did with the figs … well… that’s for next time!