Handmade Pici with Fresh Tomato Sauce and Burrata

Pici (Pinci) Pasta, Fresh Tomato Sauce, Burrata
Pici is a thick, hand rolled pasta, similar to fat spaghetti. 
It originated in the province of Siena in Tuscany.
In the Montalcino area, it is called pinci. 
This is hearty pasta best served with
 a spicy tomato sauce or rich meat sauce.

Handmade Pici (Pinci) Pasta
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 small egg, lightly beaten
1/4 teaspoon salt 
1 cup room temperature water, plus extra if needed 
Extra virgin olive oil and semolina flour for tossing 

Place the flour and salt in a bowl. Add the egg and stir in the water; if the dough does not gather around the spoon, add a little more water by the spoonful until a dough forms. Knead the dough for 5 minutes, or until very smooth and pliable; the dough should be somewhat soft but not sticky. Flatten into a disk and rub both sides with olive oil. Let rest, wrapped in plastic for 30 minutes or up to 3 hours at room temperature.

Rub a work counter with olive oil. Cut the dough into 1/2 inch wide strips and roll each into a long, thin rope, using the palms of your hands. Each rope should be 1/2 inch thick. Toss each rope as it is finished with a little semolina flour and place on a tray in curling nests until ready to cook (the pici can be held at room temperature, covered loosely with a dry kitchen towel, for up to 3 hours). If you find that the dough resists and/or sticks to the counter as you roll it out, rub the counter lightly again with olive oil.
Fresh Pici Pasta
Fresh Baby Tomato and Basil Sauce
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil 
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
Freshly ground black pepper
Red pepper flakes
1 pinch cherry or grape tomatoes, cut in half lengthwise
Freshly torn basil leaves
2 fresh burrata, cut in halves for topping

In large skillet add the olive oil and sliced garlic; cook 30-45 seconds on medium-low heat.  Add tomatoes and raise the heat to medium-high. Season with salt and peppers. Allow tomatoes to cook undisturbed for few minutes before turning.  Cook 6-9 minutes more until tomatoes wrinkle and some are golden.  Taste for seasoning; adjust with salt as needed. When the sauce is ready, add in the fresh basil.

Assembling the pasta and sauce: Cook the pici in boiling salted water until al dente.  Strain well and return to pan. Mix a little sauce in the pan with the pici.  Gently fold. Serve in individual plates with a little sauce on top, fresh basil and ½ of a fresh Burrata mozzarella. A drizzle of aged balsamic, optional.  Serves 4.

Fresh Burrata

Kale Salad Cannellini and Lime Dressing

Kale Salad Cannellini and Lime Dressing  

1 bunch Organic curly kale, rinsed and dried
4-6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Zest of 1 lime
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper
Pinch red pepper flakes
1-2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 cup cooked cannellini beans
1/4 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese

Remove the stalks from the kale.  With your fingertips break up the leaves into small pieces about ½ inch long. Place on a platter.

In a bowl whisk together 4 tablespoons olive oil, Dijon mustard, lime zest, 1 tablespoon lime juice, salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, vinegar to taste.  Taste for seasoning and add more lime juice, olive oil, and or salt and pepper to taste. Whisk to thick. Add the cannellini beans and let set 5 to 10 minutes.

Drizzle the dressing with cannellini beans over the kale and mix well.  Taste, adjust seasoning if needed or add more dressing if desired.  Grate parmesan on top. Decorate with small tomatoes for color contrast.  Chill or serve immediately.

Spaghetti al Vino Bianco e Arugula

Spaghetti al Vino Bianco e Arugula 

1 pound dried spaghetti
3 ounces minced pancetta 
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2-3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil                                                        
2 cups dry white wine, divided
Black pepper
Red pepper flakes
1/3 cup heavy cream                                      
1/2 cup freshly grated Pecorino cheese, more for topping               
5 ounces baby arugula, roughly chopped
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts, roughly chopped
15-20 pitted black olives   

Add 5 quarts water to large pot, add 2 tablespoons of kosher salt; cook over high heat.  When water comes to a full boil, add the spaghetti and until al dente. Note: set aside 1 cup of pasta water before straining.

In a large skillet, add the pancetta; cook over medium heat until crispy, 4 to 5 minutes. Remove from pan using a slotted spoon and set aside.  Add the garlic and the oil to skillet; sauté on medium-low heat until barely golden.  Add 1 to 1 1/2 cups of wine to skillet with garlic. Raise heat to medium-high for 6 to 8 minutes or until wine has reduced by half. Season with salt, pepper and red pepper flakes.

When the pasta is ready, strain and transfer to the skillet with the garlic. Add another ½ cup of white wine to skillet; cook until the wine has been fully absorbed, tossing the spaghetti constantly.   Add the cream, the grated cheese; toss to combine. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed. Use pasta water if too thick: add a little at a time. Finish by adding the crispy pancetta, arugula, and pine nuts and fold to combine.   Top with the black olives. 
Country Side of Orvieto where the grapes grow
 Those who love good food know how to appreciate it, especially in the simplest forms. With just a few easy steps, you can prepare this delicate and elegant recipe. My white wine of choice is the Orvieto White.  You can use a Pinot Grigio if you prefer.

Regina cookies (Sicilian Sesame Cookies)

Sesame cooking with fresh zest and juice of oranges

Sesame Cookies - Regina Cookies 

4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 pinch salt
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
zest 2 oranges
Juice of 1 – 1 ½ oranges
2 cups raw sesame seeds

Preheat oven to 350F degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Dry ingredients: In a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt.

Wet ingredients: In another large bowl, add the butter and sugar; blend well with an electric mixer until creamy. Add the eggs, zest, vanilla, and juice of 1 orange; blend again. Add the dry ingredients in three to four batches;  continue beating on low speed until the dough is fairly smooth.  If the dough is a little dry, add a little more juice of orange, a little at a time and mix well. Pinch off a piece of dough and see if it forms a ball easily. Make small golf size balls first, then roll into an oblong shape, about 1 ½ inches long. (The dough should be coming together well, it should not be too soft to the touch)
Rolling the cookies in the sesame seeds

Place the sesame seeds in a plate and roll the cookies into the sesame seeds, pressing them so the seeds stay on. Place the cookies on the baking sheets keeping the cookies 1- 1 ½ inches apart. Bake 20-25 minutes or until lightly browned at the bottom. Cool, and store in airtight containers. Baking time depends on size of cookies.  The sesame seeds on cookie should be slightly golden.  Makes about 2 dozen depending on size.

Baking the sesame cookies 

I have made these cookies before by following a traditional recipe that my mom used to make....they turned out a little too dry for me.  So, I experimented with orange zest and juice instead of adding more butter or eggs and they were simply delicious, beautifully scented!

These are great dunkers! Growing up my dad would dunk these cookies in red wine, while I would dunk them in my mother’s freshly made lemonade. I still prefer the lemonade. 

Seffa – Festive Couscous

Festive couscous with dried fruit, nuts, and cinnamon

3 cups fine or medium coarse couscous
1½ tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
3 cups boiling water
2 teaspoons rosewater
4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter, melted and warm
¾ cup golden raisins
½ cup dried apricots, pitted and sliced
½ cup dates, pitted and sliced
½ cup slivered almonds, lightly toasted
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
Brown sugar to serve

Place the dry couscous in a bowl, and drizzle 1 tablespoon oil on top.  Rub the couscous between your hands to coat the couscous with oil. You will know that it is well coated if some pellets stick to your hands.  Season with salt and pepper.  Run your hands through it one more time to mix well.  Pour in the hot water and rosewater; quickly stir with a wooden spoon.  Cover the couscous, and let it sit, undisturbed, for at least 10 minutes. Once the couscous is ready, remove the lid, and use a fork to break up and loosen the couscous.

Add the melted butter and stir with a wooden spoon until well blended.  Gently fold in the raisins, apricots, and dates. Transfer the couscous to a festive platter and create a mound in the shape of a pyramid.  Scatter the toasted almonds around the base of the mound.  Sprinkle cinnamon around the mound creating either a stripe or dot pattern. You can also add who dates or apricots around the mound to decorate.

Serve at room temperature with a small bowl of light brown sugar on the side for your guests to sprinkle on top.

In Maghreb, sometimes couscous is served at the end of the meal as a delicacy called Seffa, which is made with dried fruit, almonds, cinnamon, and brown sugar. This North African dish is customarily served in large mounds during festive gatherings such as weddings, anniversaries, and other occasions. And when a guest comes to your house, Seffa is offered as a symbol of generosity, friendliness, and warmth.

I recently served Seffa for my son's engagement party and I had numerous request for the recipe, so here you are....

Alba’s Napolitan Christmas Struffoli


Ingredients for the Dough:                                                                   
4 cups unbleached flour                                                      
4 ounces unsalted butter, softened                                      
3 whole eggs + 1 yolk                                                           
¼ cup sugar
1 ounce Limoncello liqueur
Zest 1 large orange
Pinch salt
Pinch baking soda
1 ounce whole milk or almond milk
For the syrup:
1 ½ cups honey
¼ cup sprinkles
Creating the logs

Cutting into small pieces

Directions for the dough:
In a large bowl add and mix the flour, salt and baking soda together. Make a little well in the center of the bowl.  Add remaining ingredients in the center.  Incorporate and mix batter until it is homogenized.  Knead about 5 minute until  the dough is smooth (if the dough is too tough, add a little milk, if it is too soft add a little more flour). Cover with towel in a bowl and allow to rest at least 30 minutes at room temp.

Once rested, divide into 8 smaller pieces; roll  each piece into thin long logs (thin snakes). Cut each log into tiny ¼ inch pieces about the size of chick peas.  Set on a clean towel to get ready to cook.

Prepare a medium size pan half filled with a light vegetable, canola, or safflower oil.  When hot, add a batch of struffoli at a time and cook.  Stir continuously and cook until just golden (not brown). Transfer cooked struffoli to paper towel to drain the excess oil. Continue this process until all the struffoli have been cooked.

Frying the dough

Directions for the syrup:
In a wide pan, heat the honey on medium-low heat about 3 minutes.  Turn off heat; add the cooked struffoli.  Mix well and uniformly.  Transfer the struffoli to a dish and shape like a wreath or small Christmas tree. Decorate lightly with sprinkles. Allow to rest about an hour before serving. 

Struffoli are sweet morsels of delicious tiny dough balls that are first fried and then dipped in warm honey.  It is a traditional  dessert in the Campania region of Italy which is served for Christmas Eve or Christmas day. Struffoli are decorated with colored sprinkles, candied fruit, and even coated almonds. They can be prepared in advance.  I usually prepare them a few days before Christmas. There are a few variations of this recipe depending of where you live.  Even though struffoli are served at Christmas, there is no rule in America, so you could make them for any special occasion and watch them go swiftly!

Cooking with Alba : Espresso Pancakes with Nutella Sauce

Cooking with Alba : Espresso Pancakes with Nutella Sauce: Nutella Sauce Espresso Pancakes  2 cups buttermilk or whole milk  2-3 tablespoons instant espresso granules  2 large eggs, ...

Espresso Pancakes with Nutella Sauce

Nutella Sauce

Espresso Pancakes 

2 cups buttermilk or whole milk 
2-3 tablespoons instant espresso granules 
2 large eggs, separated
4 tablespoons sugar   
2 cups all-purpose flour                              
2 teaspoons baking powder                                                
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt 
unsalted butter, for cooking 
Nutella Topping (hazelnut topping)
1 cup Nutella
1 cup Whipping cream

Warm the milk on low heat; add the coffee granules and mix well to dissolve. It takes 1-2 minutes to dissolve. Set aside and cool.

Separate yolks from whites in bowls.

Bowl 1:  combine yolks and sugar; mix well. Sift in the flour, baking powder, and baking soda. Mix well. Begin adding the milk and coffee a little at a time and mix well until well homogenized.  When it’s nicely mixed, add a pinch of salt and mix again. Set aside.

Bowl 2: In a dry bowl, whip egg whites until a firm stiff cloud.  Transfer egg whites into flour mixture and fold gently to incorporate fully.  Cover in plastic wrap and allow to rest in refrigerator about 20-30 minutes.

Cooking: Once the batter has rested, begin cooking pancakes in large skillet.  Add a little butter (1/2 - 1 tablespoon) at a time in skillet; ladle small scoops of batter in the hot skillet. Cook 2-3 minutes per side, flipping once. Transfer to a platter or serving plates. 

Nutella topping:
In a saucepan place the Nutella and cream on low heat to warm. Keep stirring on low heat, until a smooth homogeneous cream. When the pancakes are ready, drizzle the warm sauce over pancakes. Makes 12-24 pancakes.

These espresso pancakes are ready quickly and they can be served for breakfast, brunch, or even as a dessert. In this recipe, the pancake mix is enriched by the espresso granules that are dissolved in the milk. Add more granules if you like more espresso flavor. However, the enchanting finish to this recipe is the magnificent delicious warm Nutella sauce over these light and fluffy pancakes. 

Alba’s Spinach and Feta Bake

Spanakopita (Spinach Feta Pie)

3 (10 ounces) boxes frozen spinach, thawed and strained of all liquid
1 1/2 pounds feta cheese, crumbled
8 ounces whole ricotta, strained overnight
4 eggs, lightly beaten
Black pepper
Red pepper flakes
Ground nutmeg
2-3 tablespoons fresh dill, minced
1 cup unsalted butter, for brushing
1 box of phyllo dough, thawed in refrigerator 1 day before
2 tablespoons sesame seeds, for topping 

Preheat oven to 375 F.

Place the strained spinach in a dry skillet and cook until the spinach is completely dry.

In a large bowl, mix together the spinach, feta, ricotta, eggs, black pepper, red pepper flakes, nutmeg, and dill.

Lay the pastry sheets lengthwise on a baking sheet. Open the sheets only when you are ready to use them and cover the rest with a damp towel so that they don’t dry out. Each time you pull out 1 sheet, cover the rest with this damp towel. If a phyllo sheet breaks, use it by patching it together on the baking pan and brush butter on it quickly. I usually pat the butter on with a brush, rather than brushing it, it’s easier and the sheets will not break. 

Melt the butter in a small saucepan and begin the layering process. First brush some butter on the bottom of a 9×13 baking pan. Place one single sheet of phyllo in the baking pan; brush butter on this first layer. Repeat this process for the next seven sheets of phyllo. After the eight layers of phyllo, add half of the spinach mixture spreading it evenly with a spoon, or your hands.

Add eight more sheets of phyllo while buttering between every layer again. Add the remaining half of the spinach mixture spreading it evenly.  Top with another eight sheets of phyllo, and repeat the buttering process for each sheet.  Brush the top of the last layer in the baking pan with the butter. Sprinkle raw sesame seeds, cut in squares. Bake about 45 minutes, or until the top is a beautiful golden color.  Allow to cool about 5-8 minutes before serving. 

The Spanakopita (Spinach feta pie) is a typical Greek Cuisine Dish consisting of a treasure trove of layers of buttered phyllo dough with a filling of spinach, feta, onion, and eggs. It is prepared in a single mold and then served in small squares or prepared by rolling the filling in individual portions of triangular shape. 

I have created my version of this dish in my recent cooking class at Whole Foods, by adding strained ricotta, nutmeg, red pepper flakes, fresh dill, and sesame seeds. I lean toward a spicier version. I promise it’s not a lot of work if you are well organized.and have all ingredients ready to go.

It will keep in the refrigerator for a few days.  To heat, place in the oven over 400 F, and heat for a few minutes. Do not microwave or you could lose the crispiness. 

Stuffed Fresh Lemons with Feta and Cucumber

1 English cucumber, partially peeled and small dice
6 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
Sea salt
White pepper
Red pepper flakes
7 ounces Greek yogurt, strained overnight 
2-3 teaspoons minced fresh mint or dill, more for topping
Juice of ½ lemon or to taste
3 large organic lemons cut in half lengthwise
Drizzle extra virgin olive oil

In a bowl, add the cucumber, feta, season with salt and peppers. Add the yogurt, herb, and lemon juice to taste. Mix well, taste and adjust seasoning as needed.  Add a drizzle of olive oil and taste again. Refrigerate.

With a small paring knife remove pulp of the lemons being careful not to remove the white part of the lemon.

Fill the lemons with the cold mixture. Add a pinch or two of the fresh herb on top, a drizzle of olive oil and serve. 

No need for fancy containers, lemons make a great presentation when stuffed with this recipe, shrimp, crab, egg or tuna salad. Stuffed lemons can be made ahead and refrigerated.  Drizzle the olive oil right before serving, and top with fresh herb or toasted crumbled nuts on top.  Enjoy!!!

Easy Cooking with Alba : Alba's Cooking Classes

Easy Cooking with Alba : Alba's Cooking Classes: Secolari store in Columbia mall, is closing its door August 31, 2018.  New cooking Location for Columbia is in progress for Chef Alb...

Mussels in Creamy Butter and Garlic

Mussels in Creamy Butter and Garlic 

2 bags fresh mussels (organic if possible)
1 ½ - 2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
6-8 cloves garlic, minced
2-3 tablespoons chopped chive, minced
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Red pepper flakes
¾ cup dry white wine

Clean and de-beard the mussels in cold running water. Make sure all the mussels are firmly closed. If any remain open, give them a firm tap. If they close you can cook them. If they stay open, discard them. Also discard any mussels that are broken, for food safety.

In a small bowl, add the softened butter, garlic, chive, salt, pepper and red pepper flakes.  Fold to mix into a smooth creamy consistency.

In a large deep pan, add the mussels and cook covered on high heat about 5 minutes, or until they have opened. Add the wine and ½ of the butter mixture; mix well and cover and cook for 2-3 minutes. Remove lid and discard any mussels that have not opened.

Quickly transfer the mussels in a serving bowl, add the remaining butter mixture on top and serve. Crusty bread is delicious to dip in the sauce.

Mussels in butter and garlic sauce are absolutely French. In North Africa, my mom would make this dish on a Friday nights, when we could not have meat.  Although not my favorite, she also made this same sauce with escargot.  This sauce is bursting with flavor with the slightly sweetness of butter, the fragrant garlic, and notes of dry white wine.  A simple dish, c’est magnifique!!!

Grilled Grape Leaves Goat Cheese and Almonds

grapes on a vine
Grilled Stuffed Grape Leaves Goat Cheese and Almonds 

10-12 grape leaves from a jar                                                                                   
½ teaspoon dried thyme                                                                  
½ teaspoon dried rosemary                                                             
1/3 cup toasted chopped almonds
6 ounces goat, cold
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Aged balsamic for drizzling

Remove the grape leaves from the jar. Arrange them so they are not stacked on top of each other. Alternate position with leaves so that when you place them in the pan they are loose and they will cook evenly. Bring a medium saucepan of water to a boil.  Add the grape leaves; blanch for 30 seconds and drain. Throw the water away and add fresh water to the pan. Blanch the leaves a second time in boiling water. Drain again. Gently spread the leaves on a work surface over a kitchen towel, vein side up to cool. .  Pat dry and cut off stems.

Heat a stovetop grill on medium.

In a shallow dish, combine the thyme, rosemary, goat cheese, and pepper; combine. Take a tablespoon of mixture and roll into a small log.  Coat logs with chopped almonds and set in the center of each grape leaf.  Remember the rough side is where the stuffing goes; shiny side is on the outside for grilling.

Drizzle each leave with a thread of olive oil and then begin to wrap them into a log.  Lightly brush the outside of grape leaf packages with olive oil. Grill each one about two minutes per side. The leaves should be crispy on the outside and the cheese slightly melted on the inside. When ready, drizzle some balsamic vinegar on top and serve with a yogurt or tahini sauce.

Grape Leaf
I love the traditional Greek rice and meat stuffed grape leaves, they are usually served as a meze.  They are delicious yet a little more time consuming.  I wanted to see how they would taste if I grilled them.  Then I took another short cut and used cheese, almonds and so herbs without worrying about cooking the stuffing.  I have made them in several cooking classes and they have been well received.  Give it a try, fill them will other cheeses if you like. 

Asparagus Crab and Melted Grana Padano

Fresh Asparagus

Asparagus Crab and Melted Grana Padano 

 2 bunches medium size asparagus
 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
 2 tablespoons unbleached flour
 1 ¾ cups warm milk
Pinch of salt
Freshly ground black pepper
A pinch freshly grated nutmeg
½ cup shredded asiago cheese
1 cup grated Grana Padano, divided
4-6 ounces cooked crab lumps 

Cut/shave the dry bottoms of the asparagus.  Place them in a pan with boiling salted water; cook until very al dente.  Do not overcook. Strain and cool in ice water. Strain again and pat dry.
how to shave bottoms of asparagus
Preheat oven to 400F.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and butter the paper. Sprinkle some grated cheese on the top. When the asparagus are cooked and dry, place them on the buttered baking sheet.
Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan on medium-low heat. Stir in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, until the paste cooks and bubbles a bit, but don't let it brown, about 2 minutes. It should be slightly golden and aromatic.

Add the warm milk in two batches, continuing to stir as the sauce thickens. Bring it to a slight bubble. Add salt, pepper, and nutmeg to taste, lower the heat, and cook, stirring for 2 to 3 minutes more. Remove from the heat. Add the shredded Asiago cheese, and ½ cup grated cheese; stir until well combined. Add the crab and gently fold.

Transfer the sauce on top of the asparagus.  Sprinkle remaining ½ cup of grated cheese on top and bake about 10 minutes or until the cheese has melted to a golden color.  Serve warm.

Asparagus one of my favorite vegetables, crab one of my favorite seafood, and cheese a favorite ingredient that I could eat for breakfast, lunch or dinner. How lucky am I to have all three ingredients that I love in one dish?

This may seem like a delicate recipe to make, however it is simple and easy to prepare. Don't let the béchamel sauce fool you, if you read my recipe or watch a video on line, you will see how easy it is to make.  Once you’ve made the béchamel, it can be used for lots and lots of recipes.  So give it a try!!!