Even though I focus on winter, on the surrounding woods that have taken on such an intense coppery hue to look like a painting, on the intimate warmth of a burning stove, and of a child sleeping on your lap, Christmas is upon us. I try to ignore its approach, as if I could gain an extra week to tick off everything I wanted, or rather that I felt compelled, to accomplish.
We started working again after a few months of parental leaving. We started just in time for Christmas, which is notably the most exciting, tiring, demanding time of the year for those who work with food. This is probably why I feel completely unprepared to face our Christmas.
I haven’t bought a gift, nor I have a list that could help me. We still don’t know where and with whom we will spend Christmas, let alone having a menu for the holidays. Better not to think about the decorations: where is that Giulia who, on the first days of December, would scatter candles and fronds around the house?
But if I read the old December posts from the past few years, I realize that every time I find myself in the same situation: perhaps it is simply part of becoming an adult.
The other side of the coin, though, is that I approach Christmas without expectations. Every year this sense of magic makes me feel like I can start afresh.
After all, I adore to trim our little juniper tree at the very last minute with the decorations we bought during our travels over the years. It makes that hour that we spend surrounded by the smell of resin, disentangling the lights, a celebration of our journey together.
Although this year there won’t be a new decoration that reminds us of a trip we had together, we will hang with misty eyes a bronze-colored bauble with written Livia, my first Christmas. This was definitely the most challenging and unexpected journey of 2020.
The unexpected and a small dose of improvisation in dealing with the holidays helped me to shake off what has to be done, everything that I felt like an external imposition, to leave only what matters to me, and to us as family.
I will find an afternoon to bake the classic Sienese Christmas sweet treats, but I will buy panettone, as even this year I don’t feel like venturing into the most difficult task for any home baker.
Between a ricciarello and a slice of panforte, I’ll start thinking about what I’d like to cook for Christmas. Even if this will be a decidedly low key Christmas, without my Aunt’s long tables of relatives, I already know that, once again, simplicity and seasonal ingredients will win, with a nod to family tradition.
On Christmas Day, the first course will be a pasta bake, but perhaps not the classic lasagna. I’ve been thinking about a stuffed rigatoni pie for years, and perhaps this will be the right year to bring it to the table.
Stuffed rigatoni pie with squash, chickpeas and Piave DOP cheese
Today, for the second installment of our collaboration with Piave DOP, for the project Nice to Eat-Eu – you can find the first one on Instagram, an old time favourite – I chose a festive recipe for the upcoming holidays, a stuffed rigatoni pie.
Piave DOP is a cow cheese produced in the Dolomiti Bellunesi, following a strict disciplinary. It is a traditional and genuine product, thanks to its natural ingredients, such as fresh milk, milk enzymes, rennet and salt. I’m working with a wheel of Piave DOP vecchio, a cheese which is at least 6 months old, compact with a friable, melting structure; its flavour is strong, fruity and never sharp.
In today’s recipe, Piave DOP marries two of my favourite seasonal ingredients, squash and chickpeas. I often pair these two ingredients in my kitchen at this time of year: from a lazy chickpea and squash soup for when I do not feel like cooking, but crave a bowl of something comforting, to a quick salad with roasted squash, radicchio and chickpeas, for the busy working days. Today, along with Piave DOP vecchio, both grated and diced, they are the filling of a stuffed rigatoni pie. Well, instead of rigatoni I chose paccheri, a very similar pasta which is not ridged.
What makes it festive? On the one hand the filling: creamy, savoury, seasonal, melting. On the other hand, its look: the paccheri are placed in the baking pan standing, shoulder to shoulder, supporting each other during baking.
Squash and chickpea stuffed rigatoni pie
For the paccheri filling
- half of a Mantuan squash, about 800 g (1.7 lb)
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 350 g cooked chickpeas, drained
- 150 ml (2/3 cup) chickpea cooking water
- 100 g (3 1/2 oz) Piave DOP vecchio, grated
- 100 g (3 1/2 oz) Piave DOP vecchio, diced
- 30 g (2 tbsp) butter
To finish the dish
- 500 g (1.1 lb) paccheri
- 200 ml (3/4 cup) cream
- 2 tablespoons breadcrumbs
- 2 tablespoons Piave DOP vecchio, grated
- 50 g (3 tbsp) cooked chickpeas
- a few sage leaves
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F).
- Arrange the halved squash cut side up on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Drizzle it with two tablespoons of olive oil, then season with salt and pepper.
- Cook the squash for about an hour, until it is golden and so soft that it can be easily pierced with a fork. Remove the squash from the oven and let it cool.
- With a spoon scoop the pulp out of the squash and collect it in a bowl. Add the chickpeas with their cooking water, the grated Piave DOP vecchio, and the butter.
- Blend with an immersion blender until smooth, then season with salt and pepper. Now add the diced Piave DOP.
- Cook the paccheri in boiling salted water according to the package instruction. Choose a very large pot and cook the paccheri in plenty of water, because they tend to stick to the bottom, or to break, if they do not have enough space. Drain thr paccheri al dente and pass them under cold water to stop the cooking, then collect them in a bowl and toss with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, turning them gently.
- Butter a round 24 cm pan, then smear a few tablespoons of the squash and chickpea filling on the bottom of the pan.
- Transfer the squash and chickpea filling in a pastry bag, it will be easier to stuff the paccheri.
- Now arrange the paccheri standing inside the pan, shoulder to shoulder, and stuff them with the filling.
- Pour the cream between the paccheri, then sprinkle them with breadcrumbs and grated Piave DOP. Scatter the chickpeas and a few sage leaves on top of the paccheri pie, then drizzle with extra virgin olive oil.
- Bake the paccheri pie, covered with a sheet of parchment paper, for about 20 minutes, then remove the parchment paper and bake for 20 more minutes, or until golden.
Serve the stuffed rigatoni pie with…
This could be a very likely holiday menu for our family. It begins and ends with the tradition, with chicken liver patè and panforte, both revisited with the addition of walnuts. In between, the chickpea and squash stuffed rigatoni pie and a stuffed roast rabbit, just as easy to make as it is good.
- Chicken liver spread with walnuts. Take the usual chicken liver crostini that you can find throughout the year in my house, substitute capers and anchovy paste with a generous handful of walnuts. Dried fruit reminds of Christmas, bingo games with relatives and rich medieval desserts filled with heady spices. Just play around with the ingredients and make a festive chicken liver paté with a rich walnut hint.
- Stuffed roasted rabbit. It is not difficult to make a stuffed rabbit, just follow all the directions and have the required ingredients ready. First of all ask your butcher to bone the rabbit: after this step the recipe will slip away just as easy as making a roast turkey breast. The difference is that the result is totally unexpected and jaw-dropping. It will impress everyone, your mother, your mother in law and even the most critical guests. It looks like a haute cuisine masterpiece, but the evidence shows it is only a matter of organization.
- Fig and walnut panforte. A panforte which is not the canonical version, but still very traditional. There are walnuts, the prodigious fruit of tall trees, which were considered as a shelter for witches, the essence of a dark bitter liqueur made during the night of St. John, and figs, generous trees which give us one of the most sensual fruit towards the end of summer, a taste of childhood and a warm sweet fullness.