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How to cook a festive Italian feast for the winter holidays

During the winter holidays in Italy, cooks love to roll out their richest, most luscious ingredients - smoked salmon and Fontina cheese, whipped cream and panettone - then fold them into a festive, multicourse meal, much to the delight of their close family and friends.

With a similar Mediterranean climate, the North Coast has been blessed with a vibrant Italian population that settled here and still cooks with the same fruits and vegetables their ancestors enjoyed in their homeland, from figs and plums to fennel and oranges.

To help local cooks plan their winter holiday feast, chef Deborah Dal Fovo offered a class this fall on “Holiday Entertaining, Italian Style” at Relish Culinary Adventures.

“This is perfect for Christmas Day, and it would be nice for New Year’s Eve also, especially the salmon,” Dal Fovo said. “On New Year’s Eve, I usually prepare a pasta dish with smoked salmon, cream and chives.”

Her menu for a decadent, four-course holiday feast kicked off with a Pomegranate Champagne Cocktail (Cocktail de Champagne Al Melograno) and Smoked Salmon Mousse Canapés (Tartine Con Mousse Di Salmon Affumicato).

“Salmon Mousse is something my family would always have at Christmas,” said class participant Niccolo Pigni of Windsor, originally from Milan in Northern Italy.

Instead of lasagna, Dal Fovo continued the feast with a Crêpe Tart with Fontina, Prosciutto, Spinach and Béchamel (Torta Di Crespelle).

“Torta Di Crespelle is a lovely alternative to pasta and rice,” said Dal Fovo, whose family hails from a section of the Italian Alps known as the Dolomites. “It’s beautiful, delicious and very festive.”

For the main course, Dal Fovo chose a Rolled Pork Roast with Dried Fruit Stuffing (Rotolo Di Maiale Farcito Con Frutta Secca). She demonstrated how to butterfly the pork roast, then stuff it and roll it up tightly, securing it with a long string.

“This is the perfect Healdsburg dish,” said Donna del Rey, owner of Relish Culinary Adventures. “It uses walnut and prunes. ... Healdsburg used to be the buckle of the prune belt.”

To accompany the pork roast, Dal Fovo featured flavorful sides of Orange Braised Fennel (Finocchio Brasato All-Arancia) and Mashed Sweet Potatoes with Maple Syrup (Purè Di Patate Dolci Con Sciroppo D’Acero).

“In Italy, fennel and oranges are a marriage made in heaven,” she said. “The sweet potatoes add a very pretty color on the plate.”

It’s not the holidays without a dolce finale. Dal Fovo hollowed out a loaf of the sweet Christmas bread from Milan known as panettone, then stuffed it with a mousse of whipped cream, chocolate, hazelnuts and panettone crumb.

“Panettone is really an art, and the most difficult thing to make for a pastry chef,” she said. “It’s cooked in a paper collar and comes wrapped.”

There are not many local bakers who tackle panettone - you can order a fresh one from Larkspur’s Emporio Rulli (rulli.com) - but you can find imported panettone at Italian markets and even at Costco, which carries Dal Fovo’s recommended brand, Madi.

“The Milanese panettone is made with candied citron and orange and raisins,” she said. “This dessert is rich, especially after a big meal.”

A dual citizen of Italy and the United States who lived in Milan and Tuscany for 20 years, Dal Fovo did her culinary studies in France and now leads culinary tours of Italy throughout the year, including a “Taste Trentino” trip each September in the Dolomites. For more information, go to deborahDalfovo.com.

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Champagne ?Pomegranate Cocktail

Makes 1 serving

1 sugar cube

1 tablespoon pomegranate juice, chilled

3 ounces sparkling wine, chilled

- Pomegranate seeds

Place a sugar cube in the bottom of a champagne flute. Pour the pomegranate juice over the sugar, then add the sparkling wine. Drop a few pomegranate seeds into the glass and serve immediately.

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The salmon mousse can be made one day ahead.

Smoked Salmon ?Mousse Canapés

Makes 8 servings

For salmon mousse

7 ounces smoked salmon

- Juice of 1/2 lemon

4 tablespoon butter, at room temperature

1/2 cup heavy cream (scant)

3 tablespoons vodka or brandy

- Kosher or sea salt

- Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

For canapés

8 thin slices of fine, white bread

- Unsalted butter, at room temperature

3 tablespoons finely chopped chives

For salmon mousse: Cut the salmon into pieces and place in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the knife tool. Squeeze the lemon juice over top, cover and process until smooth, scraping down sides once or twice.

Transfer the salmon to a mixing bowl and add the butter. Whip together with an electric beater until light and creamy. Add the vodka or brandy and mix to incorporate. Add the heavy cream and pepper and whip until mounted and mixture forms stiff peaks. Add salt to taste, if necessary.

Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or up to one day. Fill a pastry bag fitted with 1/2-inch fluted tip with the salmon mousse, then pipe the mousse onto toasted bread canapés. Garnish with a light sprinkling of chopped chives.

For canapés: Shortly before serving, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Using a sharp knife, cut the crusts from bread slices. Cut each bread slice into 2 round disks using a cookie cutter (reserve bread scraps to make breadcrumbs). Brush each round lightly with butter and toast in center of oven until crisp on outside ?but soft inside, about ?5 minutes.

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You can make the béchamel sauce up to three days in advance. Crêpe batter can be made up to one day in advance. Or, the whole tart can be put together up to two days in advance, then baked before serving.

Crêpe Tart with Fontina, Prosciutto, Spinach and Béchamel

Makes 8 servings

8 ounces fresh spinach leaves, rinsed well

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons butter, divided, plus more for greasing spring-form pan and dotting tart

1 shallot, finely minced (about 2 tablespoons)

31/2 ounces sliced boiled ham or prosciutto, chopped into small dice (about ?1 cup)

3/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano, plus more to garnish

31/2 ounces Fontina cheese, chopped into small dice (about 1 cup)

- Béchamel and crêpes (recipes below)

Preheat oven to ?400 degrees. Prepare the filling by blanching spinach leaves in a pot of boiling, salted water. Drain and refresh the spinach in an ice water bath for 5 minutes to retain bright green color. Drain, then gather spinach into a ball and squeeze out all excess water. Transfer spinach to a cutting board and chop finely. Place 1 tablespoon olive oil, 1 tablespoon butter, shallots and 1 tablespoon water in skillet. Sprinkle shallots lightly with salt and cook over medium heat until soft and translucent. Add chopped spinach and cook for 2 minutes, stirring, until excess liquid has evaporated but spinach is moist. Set aside to cool.

Heat remaining 1 tablespoon butter in a small skillet over medium heat. When butter foams, add the diced ham and stir to coat with oils. Cook for one minute, then remove from heat and cool.

Assemble the tart: Generously grease the bottom and sides of the springform pan with butter. Place a crêpe in the bottom of pan. Spread a few tablespoons béchamel over the crêpe, then sprinkle with chopped Fontina cheese and chopped ham (about 1/4 cup each). Place another crêpe on top and spread with béchamel sauce, then dust with a few tablespoons of grated Parmigiano cheese and sprinkle with bits of sautéed spinach here and there. Repeat process, alternating fillings and ending with a crêpe.

Spread remaining béchamel in thick layer and sprinkle with grated Parmigiano cheese. Dot surface with butter and bake in center of hot oven for 30 to 35 minutes until surface is golden and crisp. Remove from oven and cool for 10 minutes before removing sides from pan and cutting the tart into wedges. Sprinkle with more grated cheese and serve immediately.

Béchamel Sauce

5 tablespoons butter

5 tablespoons all-purpose flour

21/2 cups whole milk

- Kosher or sea salt

- Freshly grated nutmeg

Heat the milk in a small saucepan until bubbles form around the edges, without boiling. In a heavy, medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. When butter foams, add all the flour, stirring constantly with a wire whisk. Cook the flour for 2 minutes while stirring constantly. Remove pan from heat and stirring constantly, add about 2 tablespoons of the hot milk. The flour will seize immediately and thicken considerably. Add about 1/4 cup of the hot milk and stir until sauce is smooth again before next addition of milk. Gradually increase the amount of milk added until all milk is added, stirring to keep mixture smooth. Return pan to medium heat and, stirring continually, cook until thick and it coats the back of a spoon. Remove from heat, then season to taste with salt and nutmeg. Cover with a sheet of plastic wrap against surface to prevent skin forming. Béchamel sauce will set as it cools and can be thinned with milk or cooked longer to thicken.

Crêpes

Makes 9 (9-inch) crêpes

11/8 cups whole milk

1 cup all-purpose flour

3 large eggs

1/4 teaspoon Kosher salt

2 tablespoons clarified butter

To make the batter, place milk, eggs and salt in a blender jar and pulse to blend. Add the flour and blend again until batter is smooth, then scrape down the sides of jar and blend for a couple of seconds.

Brush the bottom of the nonstick skillet with a small amount of clarified butter. Heat the skillet over medium flame until hot. Lift the skillet off the heat, holding the handle in one hand. With the other hand, use a small ladle or measuring cup to pour a scant 1/4 cup crêpe batter into the center of the pan. Quickly swirl the pan in a circular motion so the batter uniformly covers the bottom of skillet in a thin layer. Return skillet to heat and cook the crêpe for 1 minute until lightly browned. Loosen the edge of crêpe with a spatula, then use the fingers of both hands to grab, lift and flip it over. Cook on other side until golden, then slide the cooked crêpe out of pan onto a clean kitchen towel to cool. Repeat process with rest of batter to make 9 crêpes.

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You can make the stuffing for the pork roast in advance, then stuff and roll up the roast the day before. To butterfly, slice the roast in half, leaving a hinge at one end, and pound it slightly, moving the mallet sidewise as you pound.

Rolled Pork Roast with Dried Fruit Stuffing

Makes 6 to 8 servings

1 cup pitted dried prunes (about 16)

1/2 cup dry Marsala wine, Cognac or brandy

- Extra virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons butter

10 sage leaves, wiped clean with damp kitchen paper

1 clove garlic, peeled

1/3 cup coarsely chopped walnuts

1 stick cinnamon

1 tablespoons good quality honey

2 3/4 ounces mini toasts (about 36) or 4 slices toasted bread, crushed into 1 cup fine crumbs

1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano

31/2 pounds boneless pork loin, butterflied

1 tablespoon good Balsamic vinegar

1 cup dry white wine, plus more if needed

- Kosher or sea salt

- Freshly ground black pepper

- Kitchen string

Soak the dried prunes in the Marsala or Cognac for 30 minutes to plump. Remove prunes and chop into small pieces, reserving alcohol. Set aside.

Place the garlic clove and 6 sage leaves on a cutting board, sprinkle with salt and chop into a paste.

Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil and the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. When butter foams, add the garlic sage paste and cook gently for 1 minute, stirring. Add the walnuts and cinnamon stick and cook for another minute. Add the chopped prunes, soaking in the liquid and honey and cook for about ?5 minutes until alcohol has evaporated completely and prunes are soft. Remove from heat, discard the cinnamon stick and add the breadcrumbs and Parmigiano cheese. Stir well and season to taste with salt and pepper. Add more Marsala/Cognac if stuffing is too dry and crumbly. Mixture should just hold together when pressed between fingers. Let cool to room temperature.

Preheat oven to ?425 degrees.

Lay the butterflied pork loin like an open book before you, fat side down, on a cutting board or clean work surface. Liberally season the cut side of the pork with salt and pepper. Spread the stuffing over the pork, leaving a 1-inch margin around edges and gently press to form an even layer of filling. Beginning at the short end of the loin without fat, tightly roll up the pork, ending the roll with seam side down and fat side up. Arrange the remaining sage leaves decoratively on top and tie the roast at intervals with kitchen string. Liberally coat the roll with extra virgin olive oil and generously season all sides with salt and pepper.

Place the pork roll, fat side up, in a roasting pan and place in center of hot oven for 30 minutes until browned. Remove pan from oven and pour the white wine and balsamic vinegar over top of roast, then return to oven. Reduce the heat to 350 degrees and roast for another 30 to 60 minutes, basting roast occasionally and adding more white wine to prevent pan juices from burning. The pork is done when a meat thermometer inserted into its center reads 145 degrees. Test the pork in more than one place to ensure the reading is of the pork and not the stuffing.

Transfer the roast to a cutting board, tent loosely with foil and let rest for 15 minutes before carving.

Pour the pan juices into a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the sauce to a medium consistency, adding water if needed. Add the reserved prunes and remove from heat. Taste and adjust seasoning. Remove the cooking string from the roast and carve into ?1/2-inch thick slices. Arrange on a serving platter and pour sauce over top.

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Orange Braised Fennel

Makes 4 to 6 servings

2 large fennel bulbs

1 navel or blood orange

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons butter

1/2 cup warm water, plus more if needed

- Kosher or sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Trim tops off fennel bulbs, reserving tender fronds. Trim off bottom of fennel bulbs and cut in half lengthwise. Remove base core by cutting along each side. Place fennel cut side down and cut horizontally into thin slices. Finely chop the fronds and add to the fennel slices. Place fennel in a colander and rinse well under cold running water.

Wash and dry the orange. Zest or grate the orange peel and set aside. Cut the orange in half and place near cooking surface.

Heat the olive oil and butter in a large, heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat. When the butter foams, add the orange zest and cook for 1 minute, stirring. Add the fennel and season generously with salt and pepper to taste. Cook, stirring, until fennel begins to wilt, then squeeze the orange juice over top and add 1/2 cup water. Bring to a lively simmer then reduce heat to medium-low, cover pan and cook (stirring occasionally and adding more water if needed) until fennel is tender and liquid has evaporated, about 10 to 15 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed.

Serve warm.

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Dal Fovo likes to bake sweet potatoes on a bed of salt so they won’t stick or burn and the salt will absorb the syrup while flavoring the potatoes. You can keep the salt and use it for another batch of potatoes. These are best made the morning of your meal.

Mashed Sweet Potatoes with Maple Syrup

Makes 6 servings

2 1/2 pounds sweet potatoes with skins (2 or 3 potatoes)

1/2 cup heavy cream

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 1/2 tablespoons maple syrup

- Kosher salt

- Freshly ground pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Scrub the potatoes under cold, running water to remove all soil from skins, then dry with kitchen towel. Line a baking pan with 1/4-inch kosher salt and place whole potatoes on bed of salt, leaving space between them. Roast the potatoes for about 45 minutes until cooked and easily pierced with the blade of a knife. Remove from oven, transfer potatoes to a cutting board and cool only enough to be able to handle.

In the meantime, heat the cream and butter in a small saucepan over medium-low heat to just below the boiling point.

Peel the hot potatoes and pass immediately through a potato ricer or food mill into a warm mixing bowl. Beat the potatoes with a wire whisk or electric hand mixer while slowly adding the hot cream and butter to incorporate. Continue beating until potatoes are creamy and fluffy. Stir in the maple syrup. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer to a warm serving bowl.

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You can cut the bread and make the mousse for this dessert the evening before, then assemble.

Panettone Filled with Whipped Cream, ?Chocolate and Hazelnuts

Makes 12 servings

1/2 cup hazelnuts (almonds can be substituted)

1 Panettone Milanese, weighing 21/4 pounds

2 cups heavy whipping cream, cold

4 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar, plus more to garnish

2-3 tablespoons Grand Marnier (Cognac can be substituted)

13/4 ounces dark chocolate, shaved or chopped into small pieces, plus more to garnish

1/4 cup candied orange peel, cut into small dice (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Spread the hazelnuts on a baking sheet and place in center of hot oven for ?5 to 7 minutes, shaking the pan occasionally. Remove from oven then place the hot nuts in the center of a clean kitchen towel. Gather the edges of the towel together to form a pouch, then let the nuts steam and cool for 5 minutes. Pick up the pouch by the gathered towel ends and rub the hazelnuts against each other in the towel with your other hand to remove papery skins. Chop the nuts roughly and set aside. (If using almonds, just toast and chop without removing skins.)

Cut the rounded dome top off the panettone in one clean horizontal slice, about 11/4 inches in thickness, and set aside.

Using a long, thin knife held vertically, cut out the center of the panettone, leaving a 1-inch border around sides and 11/2 inches on the bottom, without perforating the bottom or sides of the bread. Hollow out the bread from the center of the panettone, then tear it into pieces and place in a bowl. Sprinkle the crumb pieces with Grand Marnier and toss to coat.

Using an electric mixer, whip the cream until thickened. Add the confectioners’ sugar and beat for another minute until light and fluffy but not dry.

Fold the torn panettone pieces, chocolate, hazelnuts and candied orange peel (if using) into the whipped cream. Fill the hollow of the panettone with the whipped cream mixture, pressing down slightly. Replace the bread dome top on the panettone and refrigerate for 2 to 3 hours.

Before serving, dust the top of the panettone with powdered sugar and decorate with chocolate shavings. Place on a round platter and wrap with a festive ribbon if desired. Serve cut into wedges using a serrated knife, taking care to cut through the paper-wrapped base cleanly so each slice has a decorative border.

Serve on individual dessert plates accompanied by a glass of Moscato d’Asti or other dessert wine or liqueur.

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com.

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