There are some recipes that only come out on special occasions. For one reason or another, they become known for "the ones you make at Christmas" or the "famous Easter cake." These walnut butter balls only come out three times a year for me: Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years. More than three times a year is not permitted! Not because they're difficult to make, in fact, they are SUPER easy, but they are also SUPER rich! They're not known for "butter balls" because they're light! They only have a handful of ingredients, butter being one of the main ones. When baking, I tend to look for recipes that call for one stick of butter or less or the somewhat healthier olive oil. These call for two sticks and the recipe only yields about 36 - 40 cookies. They melt in your mouth, of course they would, with two sticks of butter, and are super addictive. It's my "go out with a bang," dessert at New Year's Eve, before, you know, I swear off butter in January. That usually only lasts for a few weeks!
The walnuts can just as easily be substituted with pecans. The overall flavor does change substantially, but both are equally as good. I suggest making one batch of each and then decide on your favorite. Walnuts are substantially cheaper. Since the ingredient list is pretty short, it's recommended to use only high quality ingredients. I do that even when the list is long, it's not worth cooking or baking if you're going to skimp on the ingredients used!! Make sure you get the best nuts you can find (I like Trader Joe's) and pure vanilla extract only (I like King Arthur's Flour brand).
1 and 1/4 cups walnuts or pecans
2 sticks of butter, at room temperature
dash of salt
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 cups flour
1 cup powdered sugar
- Preheat oven at 350 degrees
1) Using a food processor, chop walnuts or pecans until they are very finely ground, until they almost resemble bread crumbs.
2) Using a stand or hand-held mixer, blend butter, salt, powdered sugar and vanilla until fluffy.
3) With the mixer on low, add the pecans or walnuts until just blended.
4) With the mixer still on low, slowly add the 2 cups of flour until well-blended.
5) Using a 1 inch scoop or a tablespoon, scoop cookies and roll between your hands
6) Place on cookie sheets that have been lined with parchment paper and bake for 17 - 19 minutes. Rotating the sheets half-way through baking.
7) When fully cooked, remove from cookie sheet and let cool slightly. While still warm, gently roll cookies in the additional cup of powdered sugar. Plate and serve.
Growing up in Southern Italy, my mother, who had been raised in the U.S. years prior, would often tell my sister and I stories about Thanksgiving. “There’s always a giant turkey,” she would explain to us, and everyone expresses what he or she is thankful for. I must admit, in hindsight, my eight or nine year old self didn’t much grasp the concept of this Holiday. For one thing, turkeys are rare in Italy, so I had never seen one, let alone stuffed! Picturing one roasted was a bit hard! And why a day to say thanks? Can’t it be said every day? Despite my somewhat hesitation towards the Holiday, I was very much looking forward to it in 1988, our first year in the States. My mom, whose heart had always longed to return to Boston, was very excited about it, and eager to teach us what this Holiday meant. It was her favorite one after all, and it would soon become mine as well.
Gaining some popularity in Italy as La Festa Del Ringrazziamento, Thanksgiving still remains very much an American holiday, as American as it gets! History suggests that the Pilgrims and Puritans, having settled in modern day Plymouth, MA from England, were celebrating a particularly good harvest. To celebrate a period of fasting and lack, a feast was born, one lasting several days! And what better way to celebrate than with food and family? They had a lot in common with Italians!
I am often asked if my family and I eat turkey on Thanksgiving. I think they expect me to say no, but of course we do! After all these years living here, our cultures have fully blended and “the giant turkey” my mom used to talk about in Italy gets an Italian makeover. Our sides, or contorni, are traditional Italian dishes, (sorry cranberry sauce, no room for you at our Italian table!) and the meal typically ends with an Italian dessert or two. I apologize in advance to the apple pie lovers reading this, but you will not find apple pie on our table, let alone pumpkin!
Here are a few ideas on how to “Italianize” your Thanksgiving this year.
There’s nothing I love more than a good antipasto plate, to be displayed on the coffee table or kitchen counter and to be nibbled on while the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is on in the background. In this picture, you can see that we have prepared a platter of provolone and parmigiano chunks, cured salami, green olives, cherry tomatoes and some healthy grapes thrown in for good measures. Parmesan crackers add a nice touch. Nibble, but don’t let it spoil your main course!
“The Giant Turkey”
Oh, what would Thanksgiving be without the star of the table? To give your turkey an Italian twist, very generously season it with traditional Italian herbs and spices. In this image from last year, we created a buttery paste by blending one stick of room temperature butter with dried oregano, rosemary, fresh basil, parsley and crushed garlic. The paste is then "gingerly" rubbed underneath the skin. This creates a super moist layer and ultimately helps in preventing the from drying out, particularly the white meat. The top is then rubbed with a similar paste and additional dried herbs are added on top. Place the bird on a bed of onions, carrots, celery, lemons, and we added some inexpensive white wine at the bottom of the pan to prevent burning. This gives it a bit of flavor, especially when preparing the gravy! The bird is stuffed with citrus fruits and fresh rosemary, which add flavor and moisture. You can remove and discard them after the turkey is cooked. The juices create a very delicious gravy.
The options are limitless with the side dishes! If you will be serving a pasta dish, allow me to suggest a side of farfalle with sausage, peas and mushrooms. Avoid heavy pastas like lasagne or stuffed shells, these will likely be too fulfilling, when so much other food will be served. Rather than as a first course, I think this makes a great side. But if you’re thinking of skipping the pasta all together, why not opt for stuffed mushrooms instead. Very traditional, at least in my household, stuffed mushrooms are our go-to side on Thanksgiving. Since the oven is already turned on, place the mushrooms on the top rack and cook for about 20 – 25 minutes, during the last 20 – 25 minutes of your turkey’s cooking time. See the recipe below. Another Thanksgiving classic on our family’s table is broccoli rabe. Simply sautéed with garlic and a high-quality olive oil after they have been par-boiled. In this image, we’ve added a can of par-boiled cannellini beans, which have been drained and rinsed. I used Migliaresi EVOO, because it’s great quality and made in Calabria, my native region! Plus, since it’s only a few ingredients that we’re working with, it’s important that they be of great quality. This is a rather strong oil that blends itself well with the broccoli rabe, as they are naturally a bit on the bitter side.
Nothing like ending the Thanksgiving meal with some freshly roasted chestnuts. It’s peak season during this time of the year, and roasted chestnuts are another must on my family’s Thanksgiving dinner table. They go down very nicely (too nicely!) with a nice glass of wine! If you missed my previous post on how to roast chestnuts, be sure to check it out here.
I’ll apologize again to all the apple and pumpkin pie lovers. We are, after all, trying to Italianize our Thanksgiving, so a nice berry crostata and some anise cookies are a must. These go well with an espresso or digestive, which you will definitely need after all the food you will be consuming. That and a nice, long walk! But first, the required post-turkey nap....
Happy Thanksgiving! or Buon Festa di Ringrazziamento!
8 large stuffing mushrooms
2 garlic gloves, thinly minced
1 tablespoons chopped parsley
3 – 4 tablespoons olive oil
1/3 cup fresh bread crumbs (plus extra for topping)
1/3 cup grated parmigiano cheese (plus extra for topping)
*dices of chopped cured salami (optional)
I am frequently asked if my family cooks a turkey on Thanksgiving or if we stick with a typical and festive Italian meal like lasagna or braciola on the big day. Of course we cook turkey! It's one of my favorite holidays and while we "Italianize" the bird by dressing it heavily with Italian herbs and spices, there’s definitely a turkey on our dinner table!
As with everything we do, we bring a bit of Italy to it. Our side dishes are typically very Italian, like broccoli rabe, parmigiano mash potatoes, stuffed mushrooms and my personal favorite, mushroom risotto. Being fall and mushroom season, mushroom dishes are very popular during this time of year in Italy. Here is a simple, yet delicious recipe that would make a great side to the star of the table on the big day.
5 – 6 cups of vegetable stock made from 1 vegetable bullion cube (amount is approximate)(keep stock on the heat to keep hot)
1 onion, finely chopped
3 – 4 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup of Arborio rice
8 oz mushrooms, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon parsley, chopped
¾ cup of dry white wine (any white wine that is not sweet)
½ cup grated parmigiano cheese
Salt to taste
I came home from work today in the dark. The issue I have with that is that it wasn’t even that late. With the first workday after the end of daylight savings time, I am suddenly hit with the fact that for the next six months, I will be commuting in the dark. And while I am sure I will get used to it in a few short days, the first day is just hard to accept. Upon arriving home, my first thought turns to what I would cook for dinner. After having spent yesterday cooking, testing out recipes and prepping for three upcoming cooking classes, I’m thinking something quick is in order, after all, did I mention it’s dark outside?
I go to my cupboards and my eyes turn towards some multi-colored bowties. Perhaps it’s my gloomy disposition that it’s dark outside that I turn to these colorful, and somewhat perky, pasta shapes. I mean, to look at them, they screams spring, pasta salads and perhaps a nice barbeque get- together. None of which were in the cards tonight. But nonetheless, I reach for them. I feel like they are going to somehow make me feel better. I’m relieved to see that the colors come from spinach and beets, nothing artificial in here. They are made in Italy and the brand is “Natura Amica,” with a brand name like that, at least I know I am eating something somewhat healthier than white pasta.
The next decision is what to dress them with. While the possibilities are endless, as these would go well with either a simple tomato sauce, a vegetable base or creamy sauce, I opt for something quick, simple, and dare I say it, pre-made. I turn to a jar of Made In Italy Genovese Pesto from Gran Cucina. I feel a little like I am cheating, but alas, I comfort myself in the fact that both these ingredients are made in Italy, healthy, artisanal and as close to Italian comfort food as you can get without much cooking. Plus, the goal tonight is a quick dinner and I have no doubt that these will get me dinner in ten minutes.
The oil in the pesto has inevitably risen to the top so I empty the jar in a small bowl and mix it well. The smell brings me back to a few months ago, during summer, when I made my own pesto with fresh basil and pine nuts. The ingredient list has cashews as one of the first ingredients. They are crunchy and there’s a healthy amount of them in the mix. A licking of the spoon tells me that this tastes just like homemade pesto. In the meantime, my bowties are cooking, the water is turning pinkish, but again, it’s the beets in the red strip of the pasta so no problem there. They’re very pretty to look at, and of course, the colors of the Italian flag, which no doubt was done on purpose by the manufactures.
In less than ten minutes, the pasta is cooked. The bag says 5 minutes for the cooking time, but that’s a little too “al dente” for my taste so I let it go a few extra minutes. I dress the entire half-pound bag with almost the entire jar of pesto. I leave a few tablespoons to dress the top before serving. This will easily serve 3 – 4 eaters. I even opt for a red dish, taking this red, white and green theme all the way. It looks pretty in my plate and it does indeed perk me up a bit. For a minute, I even forget that it’s dark outside.
Be sure to grab your own pretty bow ties and jar of pesto, after all, there will be plenty of dark and wintery days ahead. Best to stock up the pantry.
For these and all other imported goodies, be sure to shop at: https://www.pastaandvino.com
Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…. I bet you couldn’t read that without singing it! And while we’re a bit too early to break out the Christmas tunes, the time is just right to start roasting some castagne. It’s during this time of year that they are at their peak and chestnuts make a great addition, particularly a great ending, to any meal. While they have the name “nut” in them, they are different from other traditional nuts in several ways. They are lower in calories and fat when compared to other nuts and seeds, but are equally as rich, if not more so, in vitamins and minerals. They are also very starchy, resembling potatoes and corn when it comes to their starch content. Naturally gluten free, chestnuts are a great culinary addition for anyone trying to eat a gluten-free or reduced-gluten diet. Chestnuts are also a great source of Vitamin C, which we all know we can use more of in the winter to ward off colds!
Because they are so starchy, they tend to spoil a lot faster than other nuts. Treat them as you would your potatoes and store them in a cold, dry and moisture-free environment, such as on a shelf in your basement or even the produce drawer of your fridge. When selecting them at the store, be sure they are free of any noticeable moisture, blemishes or mold.
A popular staple during this time of year all over Italy, they are particularly popular in Tuscany, Umbria and central Italy, where you’ll find vendors selling roasted chestnuts in the middle of the piazzas and squares. Their delicious aroma can be smelled well before you can even visually spot the vendor. And while it’s perfectly acceptable to eat them raw, they rarely are. The skin is a bit hard to remove if you’re attempting to eat them raw. In fact, even by roasting them you could have some difficulty removing the skin! It can be a bit work, but worth the effort.
My preferred methods of eating chestnuts are boiled or roasted. If you’re roasting them, make sure you very carefully cut a small X on them using a small paring knife. This is done to remove their internal pressure while cooking and this also eases in removing the skin once they have been roasted. Heat your oven to 400 degrees and place scored chestnuts on a baking sheet. I put my pan directly at the bottom of the oven, without the rack, but if you’re concerned that you will burn them, which is possible if you are unfamiliar with the roasting process, you can use the lowest rack setting. Be sure to shake the pan several times, the roasting time takes about 20 minutes. Do not be alarmed if you hear a loud “pop” while the chestnuts are in the oven. Even if you score them, you could have an unruly one pop, and yes, it might cause a bit of a mess in the oven. They’re delicious hot, straight from the oven, the cooler they get, the higher the difficulty level in peeling them!
For boiling: If you’re looking to remove the peel and eat them whole, score chestnuts with an X and then boil them in enough water until they are covered. Boil for about 8 – 12 minutes, depending on the size. If you are using in a recipe that requires a chestnut puree of sorts or in a stuffing, boil for about 15 - 20 minutes and they will become much softer. You reduce your changes of having a perfectly peeled and whole chestnut if you boil them for too long, so if you’re looking for presentation on your Thanksgiving table, you might not want to boil them for too long. You can test the doneness at intervals until you have the right consistency for your needs.
While I enjoy ending my winter meal with chestnuts and a glass of wine, there are other variations of use. They are ideal in both sweet and savory dishes and they can be added to pasta dishes, soups, add thickness to stews and are a popular ingredient in turkey stuffing on Thanksgiving. If however, you are new to chestnuts and they are not an ingredient you use frequently, I highly suggest eating them in its simplest form, roasted. They are also wonderful roasted on an open fire, (again with the song!) If roasting by the fire, it is advisable to use a chestnut-roasting pan, which looks like any other baking sheet or pan with holes in it. This helps the heat circulate. If you do not have one, simply poke some holes on a disposable aluminum pan. Roast on the ashy portion of the fire and not directly on the flame. Shake pan several times to avoid burning. Roast for about 15 - 20 minutes.
In a sense, chestnuts are like potato chips, you can’t eat just one, they’re highly addictive! Whether you choose to boil, roast or cook with them, I highly suggest you don’t let this winter season go by without trying some for yourself. You'll see that they do indeed, deserve their own song!
Hi there, thanks for visiting my blog! Here you will find recipes, short stories, tales, rants and whatever else is on my mind with regards to food, Italy, travel and along those lines. Drop me a line, I'd love to hear from you!