Italian cheeses inspire a unique holiday menu

It all started with Signora Grazia, an elderly cheese maker in Panzano, Italy. While vacationing in this Tuscan village, just 30 minutes south of Florence, we walked by her farm early one morning and saw the sign that read “Pecorino and Fresh Ricotta for Sale.”

We hiked up the path and, peering through the open barn door, saw her making hot ricotta cheese in a big copper bowl over an open fire. We bought some and briskly walked back to our villa. While the ricotta was still warm, we enjoyed this delicious discovery for breakfast, topped with dark chestnut honey. However, the dish is equally delicious for lunch, dinner or dessert.

Taking inspiration from my adventures in Italy, I’m skipping traditional Shavuot fare like cheese blintzes and cheesecake this year in favor of Homemade Ricotta, Cheese and Smoked Salmon Panini, Ravioli Filled With Four Cheeses and Ricotta Cake With Zabaglione.

The first time I had grilled panini was at an Autogrill, an extensive cafe/buffet bar at a rest area along Italy’s Autostrada. We found 10 or more different combinations of panini already assembled, using a variety of breads and rolls in many sizes and shapes. If you opt to have your panini toasted, the server hands you a hot, grilled sandwich, wrapped in parchmentlike paper, with melted cheese oozing out the sides. They were so good, we had several for lunch.

Ravioli Filled With Four Cheeses will replace the traditional cheese blintzes at our holiday dinner. The pasta dough, adapted from Chef Jessica’s handmade pasta, which is prepared daily at her Ristoranti L’800 in Argelato, is as easy to make as the blini for blintzes. Boiled for a few minutes, they are tossed in melted butter and served with Parmesan cheese.

Some think serving dairy for Shavuot is related to Shir HaShirim (The Song of Songs). One line of this poem reads “Honey and milk are under your tongue.” Many believe this line compares the Torah to the sweetness of milk and honey, and years ago it was the tradition for children to be introduced to Torah study during Shavuot with honey cakes featuring words from the Torah written on them.

For dessert, in keeping with the Shavuot theme, serve Bruna Santini’s Ricotta Cake With Zabaglione.

Many years ago we were at Dal Pescatore, a three-star Michelin restaurant between Mantova and Cremona, where we ate this delicious cake that was served with a rich zabaglione sauce spooned over the top. It was made by pouring the batter into a heavy cast iron skillet, covered with a lid and placed in the fireplace, where hot coals were raked over the pot to bake the cake. Fortunately, times have changed, and baking this ricotta cake in an oven makes the process significantly easier.

From “Italy Cooks” by Judy Zeidler

Judy’s fresh homepage ricotta (Photo by Dan Kacvinski)

1 quart whole milk
1/2 cup cream
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons lemon juice

In a heavy saucepan, bring milk, cream and salt to a simmer. Just before it comes to a rolling boil, add the lemon juice, stirring until soft curds begin to form. Remove from the heat and allow curds to form. Using a slotted spoon, skim the ricotta curds from the whey and place them in a colander lined with cheesecloth. Or use a wire sieve or a small plastic ricotta basket. Drain for 15 minutes.

Serve warm or at room temperature with a drizzle of honey.

Makes about 1 1/2 cups of ricotta.

From “Italy Cooks” by Judy Zeidler

Cheese and smoked salmon panini (Photo by Dan Kacvinski)

1/2 cup Mustard-Dill Sauce (recipe follows)
12 slices sandwich bread
6 slices smoked salmon
6 slices mozzarella cheese
Prepare Mustard-Dill Sauce, cover with plastic wrap, and chill.

Place sliced bread on a work board. Spread Mustard-Dill Sauce on six slices of bread and top each with a slice of smoked salmon and a slice of cheese to cover. Cover with remaining 6 slices of bread.

Preheat your panini press or grill to medium heat.

Place the sandwiches in the panini press and close the lid. Grill the sandwich until the bread is golden brown and the cheese is melted. Slice into quarters and serve immediately.

Makes 6 panini.

From “Italy Cooks” by Judy Zeidler

3 tablespoons Dijon-style mustard
1 teaspoon powdered mustard
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon red or white vinegar
1/3 cup olive oil
3 tablespoons fresh chopped (or snipped) dill

In a small, deep bowl, combine the Dijon and powdered mustards, sugar and vinegar; blend well. With a wire whisk, slowly beat in the olive oil until it forms a thick mayonnaise. Stir in the chopped dill. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to serve.

Makes about 1 cup.

From “Italy Cooks” by Judy Zeidler

The Santini family at Dal Pescatore is famous for starting trends, and this is one of them. Make your own pasta, fill squares with the five-cheese mixture, and shape them into ravioli or tortellini. They are as light and melt-in-your-mouth as you can get. When a customer orders Bruna’s ravioli, she melts butter in a frying pan, adds grated Parmesan cheese, tosses the ravioli in the sauce, spoons it onto a plate — and voilà!

12 ounces Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
1/2 pound ricotta, drained
6 ounces Romano cheese, freshly grated
6 ounces Emmental cheese, freshly grated
6 ounces Gruyere cheese, freshly grated
1 cup whipping cream
1/2 cup butter, melted
2 eggs
3 tablespoons grated fresh onion
2 tablespoons minced parsley
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Freshly ground black pepper
Pasta Dough (recipe follows)
Unsalted butter

In a large bowl, combine the five cheeses, whipping cream, butter, eggs, grated onion, parsley, nutmeg, salt and pepper; mix well.

Prepare the Pasta Dough and roll it out in long wide sheets. Place a teaspoon of filling every 2 to 2 1/2 inches on one sheet of prepared pasta. With pastry brush or fingers dipped in water, moisten all sides and between cheese mounds. Carefully place second sheet of pasta over cheese-filled sheet. Using fingers, gently press sheets together to seal firmly at edges and between mounds of filling. With ravioli cutter or small sharp knife, cut ravioli into individual squares. Place squares on a clean, lightly floured cotton towel, and let rest 1 hour, if possible. Repeat with remaining dough and filling.

Cook ravioli 8 to 10 at a time in boiling water. Remove with slotted spoon to warm buttered serving dish. Repeat until all ravioli are cooked.

Toss generously with additional butter and additional Parmesan. Serve immediately with additional sauce.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

From “Italy Cooks” by Judy Zeidler

If your food processor has a limited capacity, make the dough in two or more batches.

3 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 large eggs
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons water

Place the flour and salt in a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Turn the machine on and off once. With the machine running, drop in one egg and, the instant it is blended in, turn off the machine. Repeat with the remaining eggs until the dough is crumbly or resembles a coarse meal. Add the olive oil and water and process just until the dough begins to come away from the side of the bowl.

Remove the dough to a floured wooden board and knead just until smooth. Divide the dough into 3 or 4 parts for easier handling. When rolling out the first piece, cover the remainder with a large bowl so the dough does not dry out.

From “Italy Cooks” by Judy Zeidler

Bruna Santini’s ricotta cake with zabaglione sauce (Photo by Dan Kacvinski)

3/4 cup dried currants
Sweet wine
2 tablespoons melted butter
1/2 cup finely ground almonds
1 pound ricotta cheese, pressed through a strainer
2 1/4 cups sugar
5 eggs
3 3/4 cups flour
2 tablespoons rum
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 cup milk
Zabaglione Sauce (recipe follows)

Plump currants in sweet wine or warm water until soft, 2 hours or overnight in the refrigerator. Drain and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Brush a 12-cup bundt pan with melted butter and sprinkle with ground almonds. Set aside.

In a large bowl, beat ricotta and sugar until creamy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition. Then mix in flour a little at a time. Stir plumped currants into flour mixture along with rum and olive oil. Add vanilla, baking powder, baking soda and milk to soften batter and blend.

Spoon batter into prepared bundt pan. Bake in preheated oven for 1 hour, until a wooden toothpick inserted in center comes out clean and sides begin to pull away from pan. Remove cake from oven and cool. Invert onto a platter. When ready to serve, slice and serve with Zabaglione Sauce on the side.

Makes 12 servings.

From “Italy Cooks” by Judy Zeidler

5 egg yolks
5 tablespoons sugar
5 tablespoons Marsala wine

Beat egg yolks and sugar until thick, creamy and light in color. Add Marsala and whisk well to combine. Cook in a double boiler, over simmering water, for 10 minutes, whisking constantly.

Makes about 1 cup.

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