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 Crepe 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.