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Lunch at Poggio Etrusco

I don’t own a home in the Tuscan countryside, but I’ve got the next best thing — I know someone who does — Pamela Sheldon Johns.
In my New Jersey kitchen, I’ve prepared a few dishes from her most recent cookbook, Cucina Povera, an homage to the peasant style cooking of Italy where nothing is wasted. Until now, we’ve never met in person. We’ve only communicated via the world wide web.
 But when she learned I was headed to Florence for a couple of weeks, she invited me to visit Poggio Etrusco, the home she and her husband Johnny Johns own, not far from Montepulciano.
It’s a house with many beautiful architectural features, like this brick archway. Everywhere you look, there is something to capture your interest.
Including a friendly menagerie of a few cats and dogs.
The house exudes warmth, just like she and her husband. Naturally, when you’re the author of 17 cookbooks, owner of a bed and breakfast in Tuscany and run cooking classes too, the kitchen is the center of activity. This is one small corner of the kitchen, where Pamela greeted me with a glass of prosecco and some munchies.
She made a variation of Adri Barr Crocetti’s recent post of bruschetta with fava beans, asparagus, peas and ricotta cheese – using really fresh sheep’s milk ricotta that was practically warm from mamma’s udders. The flavor was heightened with a drizzle of fresh olive oil pressed from Poggio Etrusco’s olives. You could have quit right here and I’d have been happier than Bacchus in an unlocked cantina.
But the next dish was what really bowled me over. It started with the blossoms of this tree. Do you recognize it? In Italian, it’s a sambuca tree and the flowers are an ingredient in the eponymous anise-flavored liqueur. In English, it’s an elder tree.

 

These are the blossoms from the elder tree. They look similar to Queen Anne’s Lace, but you can easily differentiate them because they grow on a tree, not as the perennial flowering plants that spring up everywhere in the countryside. Elder flowers were new to me, but when I got back to Princeton, armed with the knowledge I gained from Pamela, I spotted an elder tree right in the middle of town — a prime target for foraging.
Before deep-frying them, Pamela dipped the flowers in a light batter made of flour, eggs and prosecco.
Tasty? yes. Unusual? double yes. I had to fight the temptation to eat every one that was put on the plate. But I tried to make nice and leave some for the others. Besides, there was plenty more food to come.
Including these large sage leaves that Pamela dipped into the same batter and deep fried.
These savory nibbles were also a perfect treat with drinks.
Ready for the first course? – a luscious asparagus timballo, topped with an egg and spears at attention. DEE vine! Pamela’s recipe follows at the end of the post.
But wait… the deliciousness continues with savory and tender pieces of pork combined with asparagus and carrots, atop a bed of farro mixed with peas and fava beans, all soaking up the rich sugo.
Room for dessert? Ma certo, if it’s as flavorful as this homemade strawberry gelato Pamela made. Why is it that strawberries taste so much better in Italy than in the U.S.?  Maybe because they’re picked when  they’re plump and red, rather than when they’re still unripe, hard and tasteless, like those in supermarkets here.
Walking around Poggio Etrusco, you could sense the pride taken in everything that’s grown for consumption — from the chickens clucking in their pens….
To the artichokes nearly ready to be picked (I’m growing artichokes for the first time this year and they are teensy compared to these plants.)
The property has lovely patios to sit and enjoy the view of the olive groves and towns in the distance.
 Visitors can rent rooms and apartments here and really immerse themselves in the Tuscan country lifestyle, taking cooking classes from Pamela or just relaxing by the pool.
Sometimes the outdoor wood-burning oven is fired up for pizza.
Johnny’s artwork decorates the tins of olive oil and bottles of wine produced at Poggio Etrusco. This is another of his designs hanging on the wall of one of the guest rooms.
He’s a talented artist in other ways too and makes these large tote bags using old Italian movie posters made of plastic.They’re humorously lined with remnants from his old shirts and pants, complete with original pockets for tucking away cell phones, a wallet or other items.  They’d be right at home at a shop in New York City’s Soho.
And I felt right at home at Poggio Etrusco. It was hard to leave, but I know I’ll be back someday to visit these welcoming hosts and their enchanting home. Thank you Johnny and Pam for a memorable afternoon.

 

Pamela Sheldon Johns’

Timballo di Asparagi

This is a wonderful appetizer or brunch dish. It
is essentially a coddled egg on top of asparagus purée. The asparagus
purée remains creamy and blends with the egg yolk for a delicious sensation.
If you prefer a thicker asparagus purée, add 2 egg yolks to the mixture
before you pour it into the ramekins.

Extra-virgin olive oil and approx ¼ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano for the ramekins

1 bunch asparagus

¼ cup whole milk (or, if you insist, cream)

½ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

salt and pepper to taste

6 eggs

Preheat an oven to 350°F. Lightly oil (I like the
misto sprayer that I can put my own olive oil in) six ramekins and dust
generously with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Place in a baking
dish and set aside.

Cut the asparagus into three parts: the ugly tough
root that you will compost; the top 4 inches of the asparagus; and the
middle part (now known as the butts).  Cook the butts in boiling
salted water until very tender, around 15-20 minutes, depending on the
thickness of your asparagus. Drain and cool. Add the milk and ¼ cup of the Parmigiano-Reggiano and purée. Season
to taste with salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Divide this mixture evenly between
the prepared ramekins. Crack an egg into each ramekin on top of the
purée. Sprinkle the remaining Parmigiano-Reggiano over the top of each
egg to keep it from drying out as it cooks.

Add hot water to the baking dish to reach halfway
up the sides of the ramekins and place in the preheated oven. Bake until
you can see that the egg white is set (the yolk should still be runny),
about 18-22 minutes. If you want a hard yolk, bake for about 22-28 minutes.

While the ramekins are baking, blanch the asparagus
tips in boiling salted water until just tender, about 3 minutes. Drain
and set aside.

Remove the ramekins from the oven. Place the ramekins
on individual serving plates. Garnish with the asparagus tips and serve
at once.

Variation for a savory pudding:
If your guests don’t love the fabulous sensation of a soft egg yolk,
blend the eggs into the asparagus purée before distributing among the
ramekins. Cooking time will be slightly longer, about 35 minutes, or
until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.


Italian Rum Cake

 When I was younger and there was a special occasion — a wedding, a christening, a bocce banquet (yes, I went to one of those and sat next to “Lefty”) — there was always a multi-layered Italian rum cake. As a kid, it didn’t appeal to me, but as an adult, I think it’s got to be one of my favorite desserts. All the essential ingredients are there — a tender cake to bite into, chocolate and vanilla pastry cream, sweet ricotta with chocolate bits, whipped cream. All that and booze too. If you’re over the legal drinking age, what’s not to love? Oh sure, you can make it without the alcohol for the younger set, but it won’t be the same without the rum (not to mention the Sambuca that I add too.) Have it your way, but do try it. It’s easier than you think. 

You start out with a basic sponge cake. I made mine in a springform pan and sliced it in half. Insert some toothpicks all around, then cut with a serrated knife, using the toothpicks as a guide.
Once you’ve cut it in half, cut it in half again so that you have four layers.
In between one of the layers, smear some of the chocolate pastry cream. Whoops, before you do that, sprinkle a good amount of rum over the bare cake.
On the next layer, drizzle more rum (or Sambuca as I did), then smear on the vanilla pastry cream.
The final layer also gets doused with rum (don’t be stingy), then topped with a layer of ricotta that’s been mixed with sugar and chocolate bits.  A special shout-out to Anna, owner of D’Angelo Italian Market in Princeton. She knew I was making this cake and came down from Brooklyn with a fresh batch of ricotta just for me. If you live anywhere near Princeton, check out the store. It’s a great place to grab a bite to eat in the center of town, and you’ll find lots of hard-to-find Italian groceries and specialty products, including a panettone with amarena cherries that I can’t wait to try.
Here’s how it looks when the layers are in place with the filling. Now how to frost this?
Easy. Just whip up some cream and spread it along the sides and top. Add some toasted almonds or walnuts to the side of the cake. Use a piping bag to make some decorations if you want. You can probably guess this cake was for my friend Pietro, who celebrated a birthday recently.
With the holidays approaching, this cake would be a perfect special dessert. You can even bake the cake ahead of time and store it in the freezer, wrapped in foil, until you’re ready for the fillings. But don’t count on putting any leftovers in the freezer once it’s assembled. I guarantee there won’t be any.

Italian Rum Cake
printable recipe here

for the basic sponge cake:
6 extra large eggs, room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
1 tsp. grated orange or lemon zest
1 t. vanilla
1 1/2 cups cake flour, sifted

Beat the eggs in a mixer until pale yellow, about five minutes or so. Add the sugar and zest a bit at a time and beat until the mixture is thickened enough to fall off the spoon in thick ribbons. This will take about 10 to 15 minutes. Mix in the vanilla, then fold in the flour carefully, making sure not to leave any clumps of flour in the dough. Pour into a 9 or 10-inch springform pan that’s been buttered and floured. I like to put a piece of parchment paper that’s been greased and floured at the bottom of the pan also. Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 25 to 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Let the cake cool completely, then release from the pan and slice into four layers.

For the pastry cream:
4 T. sugar
4 large egg yolks
5 T. flour
2 2/3 cups milk
1 t. vanilla
2 ounces semi-sweet or unsweetened baking chocolate, grated

1 cup whipping cream (optional)

Place the sugar, egg yolks and flour in a pan and stir with a wooden spoon until the mixture is smooth and light yellow and all the sugar is dissolved. Heat the milk in another saucepan until it is scalding hot. Slowly pour the hot milk over the eggs, stirring constantly over heat. Keep stirring and cook until the mixture becomes really thick. Take half of the cream and put it into another pan and put the chocolate into this half. Mix until it’s incorporated. With the pastry cream in the first pan, remove from the heat and add the vanilla. Put a piece of plastic wrap on the surface of both the vanilla and the chocolate pastry cream to prevent a skin from forming.

If I’m feeling particularly indulgent, I’ll whip up some cream and fold that into the pastry cream. For the cake in the photo, I didn’t do it this time (but I wish I had).
Don’t tell anybody, but I have also been known to use a boxed pudding mix and add whipped cream to that.

Ricotta filling
2 cups fresh ricotta (try to find this at an Italian specialty store, but in a pinch use the commercial stuff you find at the supermarket.
1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar
2 ounces semi-sweet chocolate cut in small bits

Drain the ricotta overnight. I do this by lining a colander with a large coffee filter. You can use cheesecloth, or even paper towels. I dump the ricotta into the coffee filter, cover it with a plate large enough to cover, but small enough so I can press down on the ricotta. Then put a heavy can on top of the plate. Put the whole thing in the refrigerator overnight, placing a bowl under the colander to catch the liquid.
The next day, with a wooden spoon, mix the ricotta with the sugar and the chocolate bits.

other ingredients needed:
a couple of tablespoons for each layer:
rum (I use the darker, golden rum)
Sambuca (or other liqueur you might prefer)

Frosting
2 cups whipping cream
1/4 cup confectioner’s sugar
Whip the cream with the sugar until firm, but don’t over beat or you’ll end up with butter.

1/2 cup toasted sliced almonds

Assembly:
You can place the fillings in any order you like – chocolate on top, bottom or middle, ricotta on top or whatever moves you.

Place one layer of cake on a cake stand. Sprinkle with a couple of tablespoons of rum (or more). Spread the ricotta cream over the cake. Place another layer of cake over the ricotta, douse with Sambuca or rum or any other liqueur you prefer. Spread with the vanilla pastry cream. Place the third layer of cake over the vanilla pastry cream and sprinkle with more rum or other liqueur. Spread the chocolate pastry cream over that.
Cover with the final layer of cake and spread the whipped cream over the top and sides.

Using your fingers, press the almonds into the side. If desired, pipe some whipped cream rosettes over the top.