February 24, 2015


Watch Tower


I recently came upon this photo from a stay in the countryside outside of Lucca. Driving from Sant’Andrea di Compito to Lucca we came upon this tower in the middle of the road. Obviously the tower was there long before the paved road and when the road was built, it went right around the tower. At first we thought it was some type of storage facility for grains. After questioning a local we discovered that this was indeed a lookout post used for signaling other towers with flames.

Just one more thing I love about Italy-you never know what may be around the corner or down that country road.

Lucca Spring 2015-Cook, Eat, Laugh & Shop with Panini Girl

February 15, 2015


Hazelnut Chocolate Cookies


It’s no secret that when it comes to sweets, hazelnut and chocolate is definitely my favorite combination. When I’m at a gelateria it’s hard for me to break away from nocciola and cioccolato and order anything else. Before leaving Italy I always stock up on chocolate bars studded with hazelnuts. Is anyone going over there soon? I’m almost out of my stash…

I apologize for posting this recipe in metric, but I found it on an Australian blog and when I made them I followed the recipe using a scale to weigh the ingredients, rather than converting the measurements to cups and ounces. I’ve gotten used to using a scale and highly recommend purchasing one for baking.

This dough is pretty easy to work with and you can roll the scraps together and use all of it. The cookies are delicate and crumble easily so be sure to let them cool thoroughly on a rack when you remove them from the oven. I dipped half the batch in chocolate and froze the rest of the cookies. I had planned on dipping these too but I’ve been sneaking them from the freezer and eating them as is and they are just as delicious without the chocolate.

Hazelnut Chocolate Cookies

210gr flour
80gr ground hazelnut
200gr unsalted butter, soften and diced
60gr finely ground brown sugar
200gr chocolate for dipping (optional)

In a bowl mix with your hand all the ingredients to form a smooth paste. Let it rest covered in a cool place (not the fridge) for 30 minutes to one hour. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Preheat oven to 350°F. Roll down the dough on a lightly floured work surface and cut out cookies. Bake for 10-12 minutes or until lightly golden. Remove carefully from oven (they will be still soft) on to a cooling rack. Melt chocolate in a water bath and dip half cookie in it or alternatively just coat with a spatula half of each cookie with chocolate.

Lucca Spring 2015-Cook, Eat,Laugh & Shop with Panini Girl

January 21, 2015




I first fell for this dish when we were on our way up to Piemonte and made a quick stop for lunch in Chiavari on the Ligurian coast. We looked into the windows of various restaurants and felt that they looked a little too fancy for our midday meal. Finally we happened upon Luchin, where we were immediately drawn in by the simple menu and communal tables that were filled with locals having lunch. Of course I had to order pasta with pesto, being that we were smack dab in the home of this specialty, but this vegetable filled tart proved to be the perfect starter.

One of the things that I love about this vegetable crostata is the crust. Made with olive oil it comes together in a snap and is easy to roll out. I’ve made this with both the food processor and also by hand and both were simple to make and successful.

Serve the erbazzone with a salad for lunch or dinner or slice it into smaller pieces and include it in an antipasto platter.



2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup extra-virigin olive oil
1/3 cup cold water

Put the 2 cups of flour and the salt in the food processor fitted with the medal blade. Pulse for a few seconds. Mix the oil with 1/3 cup cold water. With the food processor running, pour the liquid through the feed tube and process about 30 seconds, until a soft dough forms and gathers on the blade. If the dough is not coming together, it’s a little too dry. Add more water in small amounts, until you have a smooth, soft dough. I didn’t need any extra liquid.

Turn the dough onto a lightly floured board and knead for a minute until it’s smooth and soft. Wrap in plastic wrap and let rest at room temperature for 1/2 hour. You can refrigerate for up to a day. Let come to room temperature before rolling.


2 large bunches swiss chard (rinsed, stems and tough ribs cut off and discarded, leaves cut into 1″ strips)
1/ 4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 large garlic clove, peeled and minced
1 small onion, finely chopped
1-3/4 teaspoons kosher salt
3 large eggs
1/3 cup fine dry bread crumbs
Freshly grated nutmeg
1/3 cup drained ricotta cheese
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
small handfull of toasted pine nuts
1 egg beaten with a little water for brushing on crust

Bring water to boil in a large pot and add all the chard, submerging the strips. Boil for about 10 minutes, until the chard is tender. Drain and cool, then squeeze the leaves by hand, pressing out as much water as possible.

Pour the olive oil into a skillet and set it over medium heat. Stir in the chopped onion and garlic and cook until onion is softened (be careful not to burn the garlic). Add the drained chard, 1-1/4 teaspoons salt and mix to coat with the oil and cook for a few minutes. Transfer to a large bowl and cool briefly.

Beat the eggs with the remaining teaspoon salt in another bowl and stir into the warm chard. Add some freshly grated nutmeg, the cheese (ricotta and parmigiano), pine nuts and bread crumbs. Set aside until you are ready to bake.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Roll the dough out onto lightly floured work surface, gradually stretching it into a circle. Drape the sheet of dough over a parchment lined baking sheet.

Spread the filling onto the dough-lined pan in an even layer and then fold the flaps over, with the filling exposed in the middle. You could also bake this in a pie dish, making a double crusted pie. Brush egg wash over crust. Bake in the oven (on a pizza stone if you have one) for about 30 minutes, until the crust is golden and the filling is crisp on top. Cool on a wire rack for 30 minutes.

Lucca Spring 2015-Cook, Eat, Laugh and Shop with Panini Girl

January 8, 2015


Stewed Sausage With Fennel


For years I’ve subscribed to both Bon Appetit and Food & Wine. I have to admit that for the most part I’ve been more partial to Bon Appetit. The latest issue had me rethinking my allegiance. I understand that with the New Year there’s usually a fair amount of ideas for “healthy eating” in the food magazines, but Bon Appetit went a little too far for me. I suppose it’s because I’m all about cooking rustic dishes and eating whatever I feel like, but in moderation.

On the other hand the January issue of Food & Wine had me making lists of all the dishes that I wanted to try. I loved their article on female chefs and the people that inspired them. As soon as I saw that there was an article about Nancy Silverton I knew that I would soon be cooking up a storm, dreaming that I was with her in Umbria.

The first dish I tried was from the well known April Bloomfield whose inspiration was Ruth Rogers, of River Cafe (London) fame. I have a story about dining there with my great friend B., but that’s another post. When I saw fennel and sausage in the photo I went right out to the store for the ingredients. J. wasn’t around when I was in the kitchen cooking and I made him look at the magazine and take a guess as to which dish I had prepared. He knows me well. His first guess was Sausage with Fennel. Buon Appetito!

Stewed Sausage with Fennel

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
12 sweet Italian sausages (4 1/2 pounds)
3 fennel bulbs—trimmed, each bulb cut into 8 wedges, fronds chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds, crushed
Kosher salt
One 28-ounce can San Marzano whole tomatoes, crushed with your hands, juices reserved
1 cup dry white wine
3 pequin chiles or 2 chiles de árbol

In a large enameled cast-iron casserole, heat the olive oil. Add half of the sausages and cook over moderate heat, turning, until browned all over, 5 minutes. Transfer to a plate; repeat with the remaining sausages.

Add the fennel wedges to the casserole and cook over moderate heat, stirring, until golden, about 5 minutes. Add the onion, garlic, fennel seeds and 1 teaspoon of salt and cook, stirring, until the fennel is lightly browned, about 3 minutes. Add the tomatoes and their juices, the wine and chiles. Tuck the sausages into the sauce. Cover and cook over low heat for 15 minutes. Uncover and simmer until the sausages are cooked through and the sauce is thickened, about 45 minutes longer. Garnish the stew with fennel fronds. Serve over polenta or mashed potatoes.

Lucca Spring 2015-Cook, Eat, Laugh & Shop with Panini Girl

December 29, 2014


Chocolate Hazelnut Squares


I’ve been a fan of hazelnuts for as long as I can remember. Growing up I would seek out the little round nuts in the bowl of mixed nuts that was on the kitchen table during the winter. Back then I knew them as filberts. Years later I discovered that these nuts paired perfectly with chocolate. I think my first experience with this combination was when my friend A.’s husband brought back a box of Perugina chocolates from Italy. I couldn’t seem to get enough of the candies labeled gianduja-a chocolate hazelnut mixture.

Fast forward to my travels in Italy and everywhere I turned I found chocolate bars studded with hazelnuts. A favorite spot for indulging my addiction is Caniparoli Cioccolateria in Lucca. Milk chocolate, dark chocolate, white chocolate-I’m not fussy-I bought them all and sampled them daily before stuffing my suitcase and heading home.

Well, my stash has dwindled, but these squares definitely will tide me over until I’m back in Italy. They are like a super rich brownie topped with ganache and toasted nuts. I’ve been eating them along with my morning cappuccino (I know, pretty decadent), but they would be wonderful served for dessert with a scoop of vanilla ice cream over top.

Chocolate Hazelnut Squares

Vegetable oil spray
1/2 cup hazelnuts
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Pinch of salt
5 ounces semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 stick plus 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
3 large eggs, separated
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1/2 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon instant espresso powder
5 ounces semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
Chopped toasted hazelnuts, for garnish
Preheat the oven to 375°. Spray an 8-inch square baking pan. Line the bottom and 2 sides with parchment paper, allowing the paper to extend 1 inch beyond the pan. Spray the paper.

In a pie plate, toast the hazelnuts in the oven for 12 minutes, until the skins blister. Spread the nuts on a kitchen towel and let cool completely. Rub the nuts together to rub off the skins. Transfer the nuts to a food processor. Add the flour and salt and pulse until the nuts are finely ground.

In a microwave-safe glass bowl, heat the chocolate at 20-second intervals, stirring a few times, until melted. Let cool to warm. In a bowl, beat the butter with the sugar at medium-high speed until fluffy, 2 minutes. Add the chocolate, egg yolks and vanilla and beat until combined. Beat in the dry ingredients just until incorporated.

In another bowl, using clean beaters, whip the egg whites at high speed until soft peaks form. Fold the whites into the batter until no streaks remain. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the surface. Bake in the center of the oven for 30 minutes, until a skewer inserted in the center comes out with a few moist crumbs attached. Let the cake cool in the pan for 30 minutes, then freeze until chilled, 1 hour.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Invert the cake onto a cutting board and remove the paper. Cut the cake into 5 equal strips, then cut each strip crosswise into 5 squares, wiping the knife between cuts. Transfer the squares to the prepared baking sheet.

In a microwave, heat the cream and butter until very hot. Whisk in the espresso powder. Add the chocolate and let stand until melted; whisk until smooth.
Using a small offset spatula, spread the ganache on the top of each square. Sprinkle the squares with chopped hazelnuts and refrigerate until the ganache is firm, about 30 minutes.

***The original recipe calls for icing the sides of each square in addition to the top. I opted to just frost the top and saved the leftover ganache to use as a fudge sauce for ice cream.

Lucca Spring 2015-Cook, Eat, Laugh & Shop with Panini Girl

December 22, 2014


Pasticcini-My Little Love


I first discovered my passion for these tiny pastries when I lived in Arezzo for a month while attending language school. As luck would have it there was a pasticceria located across from the entrance to my apartment. I made a point of stopping there each morning on my way to class and would buy a little something to enjoy during our morning break.

When I moved on to other Italian towns I mistakenly assumed that it would be easy to find a similar type pastry shop. I soon found out that this wasn’t the case. There are shops selling cornetti and other breakfast pastries, but not always my favorite-i pasticcini. Is it a regional specialty? I’m not sure. I never found any in Bologna although a few cafes in Lucca do sell them.

On our recent stay in Rome I had a mission to find such a shop. I searched on line for pastry shops and found one selling Sicilian specialties located not far the Pantheon. The shop is beautiful and the staff is attentive, but no pasticcini. One morning when we were on a mission to find Baladin (an Italian brew pub) we passed a store with pastries in the window. In we went and I tried to order just one, but that wasn’t to be. My first choice was the one with pistachios (fourth from left in the photo) and then I ordered on topped with chocolate. The pistachio was my favorite.

Lucca Spring 2015-Cook, Eat, Laugh & Shop with Panini Girl


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