In the Kitchen with Rosy
This won’t come as a surprise to those of you who know me, but some of the very best moments during our busy tour season this year were spent in the kitchen. Not unlike the way that dinner guests always end up converging right where the action is, our tour participants were drawn to the Italian kitchens we visited like moths to the flame. And in some cases, it really was a flame since we visited more than one glowing wood-burning oven heated to almost 700 degrees Fahrenheit. In the experience of diving into new ingredients with Italian home cooks, bakers, butchers and professional chefs, our guests deepened their understanding of this culture and its people. And they ate very, very well.
Culture is transmitted in many and varied ways. Traditional music and dance, art, architecture, religion, family structure and public institutions all reveal the values, both historical and contemporary, of a people. But most revealing of all is the way a culture thinks about food: its cultivation, procurement, preparation and consumption. And in Italy, food provides the deepest bond of all, uniting families by sharing the pleasures of the table. How best to integrate our guests into the Pugliese way of life during their time here? We started in the kitchen.
At Masseria Fumarola, our guests learned to prepare a dizzying array of Pugliese specialties with Chef Rosy Grottoli, chef in residence at this luxurious masseria nestled among the vineyards and olive groves of the Martina Franca countryside. Rosy, who trained professionally in nearby Taranto, says that she learned the majority of her repertoire from her grandmother. Yet she is constantly innovating, using traditional Pugliese ingredients in new ways without severing their relationship to the past. She’s also the mother of two young children to whom she is passing along her love of these time-tested recipes along with her passion for blazing new trails.
We spent hours with Rosy learning to prepare two full Pugliese meals. This was no small feat, because a Pugliese repast is unlike any you’ve experienced in its breadth and depth. From orecchiette (little ear-shaped semolina pasta) with cime di rape (broccoli-like turnip tops) to polpette al primitivo (primitivo wine-spiked meatballs), we absorbed it all. And because Rosy is a gracious, generous chef committed to sharing all of the tricks that elevate these dishes from ordinary to superb, pens were furiously recording every nuance in between a storm of chopping, sifting, kneading, stirring and sampling.
Rosy’s deft touch with classic, local ingredients is especially evident in her desserts. Typical of home-prepared sweets here, nothing she makes is ever too sweet or cloying. Instead, her recipes rely on the integrity of the materia prima (the main ingredients) without excessive adornment. Almonds figure heavily, as does freshly made ricotta and an array of locally cultivated fruits. And the results are nothing short of sublime. We made an almond and carrot torte that was both light and chewy, but the capolavoro (masterpiece) was Rosy’s pear and ricotta torte.
It couldn’t be simpler. Using ricotta as the “fat” in the recipe, the torte requires little more than eggs, flour, sugar and pears along with a little leavening agent. The batter comes together in minutes without any special tools or fussy procedures, then the torte bakes for about an hour. Pear and Ricotta Torte is also incredibly versatile. During the tour, we served it in a puddle of dark chocolate sauce to end the meal at Masseria Fumarola one evening, but you could also try an orange curd sauce to complement the orange zest and the pears in the batter. And we’ve been known to eat this torte for breakfast, too, since the ricotta gives the crumb good staying power.
I plan to share a few of Rosy’s recipes here from time to time and I urge you to give them a try. Deeply satisfying, they’ll provide you with a warm introduction to this part of Italy along with a desire to come visit. Rosy will be waiting for you in the kitchen.
Torta di Ricotta e Pere—Pear and Ricotta Torte
1 1/2 cups (350 grams) fresh ricotta—see note below
1 3/4 cups (400 grams) pears
1 cup plus 2 Tbsp. (250 grams) flour
1/2 cup (120 grams) sugar
1 tsp. (16 grams) baking powder
1 tsp. (16 grams) pure vanilla extract
1 orange (preferably organic)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Celsius)
Prepare an 8 or 9 inch (20 or 23 cm) springform pan by oiling it with a mild, fruity extra virgin olive oil. Lightly dust the pan with flour, shaking out any excess.
If the ricotta is very watery, let it drain for about half and hour in a sieve. Do leave some moisture in the ricotta, though. You’ll need some moisture when mixing the batter.
Zest the orange using a microplane or fine grater; place the grated zest in a large mixing bowl. Peel the pears and cut them into small cubes. Measure them after they have been cut. Juice the orange into a small bowl large enough to hold the pears and leave the pear cubes to macerate in the orange juice while you proceed with the next steps.
Mix the ricotta with the sugar and orange zest in the large mixing bowl. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the vanilla extract, then add the flour and the baking powder, stirring well to combine. Add the pear pieces to the batter, stirring to incorporate. If the batter seems stiff, add the orange juice in which the pear pieces were macerating.
Pour the batter in the prepared pan and bake for 50-60 minutes. Let cool, then serve with Dark Chocolate Sauce (recipe below) by pouring a puddle of sauce on a dessert plate and topping it with a slice of the cake. To further gild the lily, add a little lightly sweetened whipped cream or crème fraiche.
Note: Use the freshest ricotta you can find, without stabilizers or other additives. Bellwether Farms makes a cow’s milk ricotta that is highly recommended. Find it here.
Dark Chocolate Sauce
1/12 cups (350 grams) heavy cream
2/3 cup (150 grams) dark brown sugar
4 ounces (115 grams) good quality bittersweet (not unsweetened) chocolate, chopped
3 ounces (85 grams) good quality unsweetened chocolate, chopped
4 Tbsp. (50 grams) butter, softened
3-4 Tbsp. (40-50 grams) amaretto, brandy or similar spirit
Combine the cream and the sugar in a heavy saucepan over medium high heat, whisking until the sugar is completely dissolved. Remove from the heat, add both types of chocolate and whisk until the chocolate is completely melted. Add the butter and the amaretto or brandy and whisk until the sauce is smooth. Let cool slight before serving. If you make the sauce ahead, store it in an airtight container for no more than a week; reheat over a double boiler, stirring occasionally.