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Posts tagged ‘Italian’

Breakfast at La Baita

Autumn is a love-hate time for me. On the one hand, I relish the new spectacle of fiery colours transforming the landscape from green lushness to a wealth of auburn warmth. On the other, I bemoan the passing of my favourite season of Summer, and the conclusion of my sun-drenched travels, which feel as though they have ended before they even begun. But in this latter respect, I have an antidote, right around the corner from my London home; a place where I can go and feel every inch as though I am back on holiday, surrounded by the vivacity of the Sicilian spirit, and food to match the very best Italian fare: La Baita on Clapham Common.

Located at the very centre of the Common, alongside the grand Victorian bandstand after which the cafe is named, from a distance you would assume La Baita is your bog-standard park cafe selling bacon butties and ice cream. However the Italian name signifies that this cafe is more than your British norm. Rather, run by Sicilians and southern Italians with a true passion for the food of their great nation, it is a fantastic little eatery with food so good that I have never found an Italian restaurant in London to beat it.

Clapham Bandstand

Breakfast at La Baita (2018© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown, pen on paper)

Whether it be because of the fine food, the passionate staff, or the beauty of its parkland surroundings, La Baita has become our “local” in every sense of the word. Some weekends we even go twice a day! So it felt only natural that over our last few visits, I should capture the cafe’s terrace in my sketchbook, at the season’s leafy best. After all, it won’t be long before those leaves have fallen ground-wards, and the terrace of La Baita becomes paved with a transient crispy carpet of auburn gold.

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2001-2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. For more information on the artwork of Nicholas de Lacy-Brown, visit 

Tuscan Towns #3 – Casale Marittimo

Driving along on the slower (and far more beautiful) inner coastal road from Castagneto towards Livorno, you may notice on the hills beyond the acres of vineyards a perfectly formed little town perched up at a height. Small as a toy town but quaint in every respect, there is very little in Casale to place it on the tourist map, but with its cute little central square and an endearing piccolo church I defy it not to please any visitor to the max. But for us Casale was not about the uniquely formed sloping streets or the picture-perfect micro-shops. It was about the views, and one very special lunch spent appreciating them.


At the Osteria L’impronta, we enjoyed one of those lunches that will linger a long, long time in the memory. With the most incredible private terrace all to ourselves, a soundtrack of jazz, sun rays bouncing off the table’s edge and an endless supply of wine produced on the very land whose spectacular appearance we spent our whole meal admiring, it was like a lunch from a legendary time of utopia. The kind of occasion writers conjure up and artists swoon over. And then there was food – a mix of perfectly al dente pasta, crusty bread with deep golden olive oil, and unctuously rich cinghiale (wild boar) from the surrounding landscape. All combined to make this lunch the culinary high point of our holiday, and a true homage to this legendary region of Tuscany.


© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2001-2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. 

Pizzetta by Polpo

It’s official, I’ve gone Polpo-loco. Following Saturday’s octopussy success, on Sunday I went Pizzetta crazy, producing some 12 mini pizzas as inspired by the London eatery Polpo‘s glorious cookbook which was undoubtedly my favourite Christmas gift this year.

I was a little put off by the prospect of making my own dough, what with a day of painting ahead and a pile of Sunday-night ironing to get through and very little time for kitchen disasters. However, the toppings were almost too tempting to bare, and there was no way I was going to contaminate the fine flavours with a shop-bought pizza base. So, following the Polpo recipe, I set about making my pizzetta dough which, as it turned out, was as easy as it was enjoyable – all that kneading was both a stress reliever and January workout for the arms, which is good, because two weeks in and my new year’s resolution to workout daily is failing abominably.

My dough, ready to go...

My dough, ready to go…

To make the dough, you just take 500g of strong white flour, and mix this in a bowl with 300ml of tepid water, 15g of salt (2 teaspoons) and a 7g sachet of fast action dried yeast (or 15g if you can get your hands on fresh). Once mixed into a ball, you knead the dough for about 10 minutes on a floured surface, stretching the dough and then bringing it back into a ball, doing this again and again until the dough feels springier. I kneaded mine while watching Francesco Di Mosto’s BBC Venice series – a perfect accompaniment to my Venetian culinary adventure.

Once kneaded, place your dough in a bowl covered with oiled clingfilm and leave somewhere warm until the dough doubles in size (at least 30 minutes). Then, divide the dough into 12 pieces and roll out each into an approx. 20 cm disk and then get creative with your toppings. I tried the following…

Prosciutto & Asparagus and Zuccini, Chilli and Mint

Prosciutto & Asparagus and Zuccini, Chilli and Mint

Pizzetta Bianca and Anchovy, olive and basil

Pizzetta Bianca and Anchovy, olive and basil

Spinach with a soft-cooked egg

Spinach with a soft-cooked egg

Mortadella with gherkins and blue cheese/ Salami Milano with fennel

Mortadella with gherkins and blue cheese/ Salami Milano with fennel

Rosemary and potato/ Prosciutto, mushroom and blue cheese

Rosemary and potato/ Prosciutto, mushroom and blue cheese

Salami, sundried tomatoes and torn basil

Salami, sundried tomatoes and torn basil

The combinations above are pretty self-explanatory, and who needs a recipe when you have the blank canvas of pizza dough before you. But a few tips: I started off with a basic cheese base of half grated parmesan and a scattering of good quality mozzarella. Don’t overload your  pizzetta with cheese or they will be soggy.

If potato and rosemary is your thing, thinly slice a potato and blanch the potato in boiling water for about 30 seconds before placing on the pizza. Do the same with the asparagus if using it with prosciutto as above. The spinach combination is a large handfull of wilted spinach chopped with half a clove of finely chopped garlic and a tablespoon of creme fraiche – cover your pizzetta base with the spinach mix and crack an egg over the top before placing straight in the oven – be sure not to overcook – that egg needs to be nice and runny. Oh, and don’t forget to season your pizzas as you would any other food, and a good douse of olive oil certainly adds the magic touch just before serving.

Re cooking, restaurant ovens are around 300C. My oven only goes up to 275C which was good enough – but make sure you heat your baking trays before hand so the base of the pizzetta’s go nice and crispy. Each pizza should only take around 6 minutes.

These pizzetta’s are so easy to make and somehow less daunting than full sized pizzas. Plus, you get to sample a more varied palate of delicious Italian ingredients in a single meal. Buon appetito!

Saffron Risotto with a gathering of autumn flavours, edible gold leaf and an espresso reduction

I always thought I had risotto down until I watched an episode of Australia’s Masterchef on TV the other day (yes, we have the Aussie show in the UK and it’s so much better than the British version – Apprentice challenges meets cooking stress – classic). A couple of weeks back, the budding final 10 contestants had flown half way around the world to the lavish panoply of gastronomic delights that is Italia. Across the week, the illusive risotto, previously termed “the masterchef death dish” (because so many contestants failed in their attempts to cook it), was cooked twice – and appropriately so, being as they were in the home of the famed rice-based dish. For the first, a saffron-yellow, creamy and simple risotto was topped by a single sheaf of edible gold leaf and frankly looked amazing (needless to say, most of the contestants failed in  their attempts to recreate the dish). The second risotto was made in a master-class at the end of the week. Again, the recipe was for a simple risotto, which, instead of adding onions at the beginning, added them right at the end as a type of purée. I was inspired.

So last weekend, I decided that my tried and tested risotto method should be set aside for a new radical approach which was to be something of a combination of the two methods I saw on TV with a little of my own twist on top.

Up first was the stock. I used 900ml of ordinary chicken stock and added to this the dried old husks from a hunk of parmesan cheese which had been hanging around in my fridge. This lends a wonderfully rich parmesan undercurrent to the risotto without going overkill at the end. I also added some chunks of ham and a good pinch of saffron strands straight from my spanish travels. I allowed this stock to simmer gently while getting on with the other components.

My red onion purée

Up next, I chopped an onion (it should be a white one – I only had red, which tends to redden the saffron yellow colour of the risotto when stirred in at the end, but it’s not a big deal). I sweated my onion, covered, over a low heat in plenty of butter (a good 50g worth) and seasoning. I left the onion to sweat for a good 20 minutes, before adding it to a food processor, along with another knob of butter and making a creamy puree. This I then placed in the fridge to firm up a bit for use later.

Next, while the onions were sweating, I turned to my espresso reduction –  This creates a wonderful deep, almost bitter-sweet contrast to the richness of the risotto’s parmesan flavour, and looks amazing when painted onto the plate. For the reduction, I made two double espressos in my coffee machine, and adding a single sachet of sugar (about a dessert spoon) and the coffee to a pan, I started simmering the coffee fairly rapidly, stirring often, until it started to reduce. Be careful this doesn’t burn or the espresso will become too bitter. Once thickened and syrupy, I set aside (keeping warm).

Before moving onto the risotto, I chopped around half a butternut squash, seasoned, drizzled with oil and placed in the oven at 200 degrees Celsius.

OK, onto the risotto. So in a pan went 200g of arborio rice, which I toasted lightly in a few knobs of melted butter for a minute or so. Then, straight to the rice (no wine added in this recipe) I went with my first ladle-full of stock, stirring appropriately. On masterchef, George, the presenter, suggested that one should “aggravate” rather than stir the risotto – personally, in my pans, it’s stir or stick, so I ignored his approach, but feel free to shake the rice around a lot rather than stir if you have a really effective non-stick pan. Taking the dish one ladle-full at a time, the rice started to become thicker and yellower and overall more delicious.

As the risotto neared its completion, I fried up a good handful of sliced mushrooms (you can use any variety, the prettier the better) in some butter and oil, along with some chopped sage, a crushed garlic clove, seasoning and some chopped parma ham (pancetta would also work well). These create some amazing autumn flavours and a textural variation to the risotto. Before the autumn ingredients were done, and once the stock was used up, I left my risotto to rest for 4-5 mins with the lid on (the risotto, once cooked, should be creamy and yet loose, with the rice tender, but still with some bite).

So, pulling everything together, I first painted my plates with the espresso reduction. I then stirred my onion puree into the risotto – so creamy and amazing it made me salivate instantly. I then spooned the risotto onto my plates, and carefully piled some of the butternut squash and mushroom mix onto it. I then crowned my dish with a few fragments of edible gold leaf in homage to the incredible creation I saw made on TV.

And there you have it. The new radical approach to cooking risotto worked. No wine, no parmesan at the end, but with an onion puree and a very original coffee puree on the side. So different from my previous method, but so, so good.