Langhe, Italy’s Hidden Gem

This little area nestled in the Northwest corner of Italy is decidedly my favorite area in Europe – coming from me, the girl who’s generally in love with Europe as a whole. If paradise exists, then this is it. Everywhere you look, rolling hills covered with world class vineyards grace your eyes. Picturesque towns spot the landscape as you wind through the hills. This region is generally known for its wine and truffles, and with good reason. But as a travel destination, Langhe, I believe, is highly underrated. Unlike Rome or Florence, you won’t find Da Vinci’s or never ending ruins to feast your eyes upon. You won’t go running from the Vatican to the Coliseum, lugging around your camera trying to beat the crowds. Instead, you’ll stop and literally and figuratively smell the roses. Life runs on a different pace here.

langhe vineyards

wine langhe italy vineyards

We headed down to Langhe as a stop between Turin and the Cote d’Azur in France. To be honest, I was a little disappointed by Turin. I knew that Turin was a large center of the slow food movement considering its proximity to Bra, and I went with grandiose ideas that I would have some glorious gastronomic experience there. While I certainly enjoyed the food, it didn’t particularly stand out and I felt no different afterwards. The city itself was a little rough on the edges, and the areas around Turin were run down, and seemed to be economically suffering. Despite how industrial Turin is, the areas around Turin were agrarian. I started getting a little concerned about what Langhe would be like. The towns we drove through on the way were quite run-down and amidst the flat fields we only saw run down shacks.

castle in langhe piedmont

These fears were quickly dispelled after driving up the crest of a hill, the scenery dramatically shifted. The flat landscape was no longer, as we suddenly found ourselves in the midst of rolling hills covered from head to toe in vineyards. It immediately turned from run down to picturesque. On our drive, we spotted many castles sitting atop the hills. Most of these castles are actually privately owned and not open to the public, which was a shame as we would have loved to check them out.

vineyard of our b&b

grapes in langhe piedmont

As we got to our B&B, Agriturismo Il Cortile, we realized that the owners, and their entire family, did not speak English. And we didn’t speak a single world of Italian. But that didn’t stop them from being incredibly kind and hospitable. The owner’s mother spoke to us animatedly in Italian, though I didn’t understand a single word that came out of her mouth, I felt like I got the gist of some of it. After giving us some water and treats upon our arrival, they took us down to their backyard where their young children showed me their chickens, baby ducks, and puppies. We didn’t need to speak because cooing at baby animals is clearly a universal language.

That night, we had dinner at the restaurant connected to the B&B and that was certainly an experience. The language barrier was as formidable as ever as our waiter tried to explain to us the items on the menu. Good thing it was a fixed menu and we didn’t have to choose any of the items. I applaud his efforts, even though we both gave up after the third dish. The food was absolutely delicious, as we ate Italian classics like risotto and prosciutto with melon. I couldn’t quite discern what a few of the dishes were but they were certainly all delightful.

view from Barolo church langhe

After dinner, we took the opportunity to drive around Langhe, and we ended up in Alba, the heart of Langhe. Alba itself is famous for its truffles and wine, but what many don’t know is that Nutella’s (and Ferrero) home is here. I was in Alba during the weekend, but during the week, supposedly, the entire town smells like Nutella due to the nearby factory. Now, if that doesn’t convince you, I don’t know what will. As a plus, I found that the Nutella here tastes better than the ones we get here in the United States due to the superior quality hazelnuts and chocolate. I might have lugged back three 850 gram jars home. It was that good.

center of alba piedmont

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The town itself is absolutely charming. The streets were filled with various food shops, specializing in items like truffles, wine, coffee, chocolate etc. Right outside the old town walls sat this wonderful gelateria – Gelateria La Romana. The gelato sat safely enclosed inside shiny metal canisters to maintain their temperature and consistency. This allowed the people to spin the gelato onto the cones for you. As we were struggling to figure out the menu (surprise surprise), we were saved by a lady who studied abroad in the United States and spoke fluent English. The gelato was perfectly creamy, and I was tempted to go get myself a second cone had I not already filled myself up with other goodies earlier.

Langhe was filled with Italian vacationers. Vacationers, and not tourists. I was a tourist posing as a vacationer, and while I certainly enjoyed myself, I still aspire to someday rise up to vacationer. There was little to no english being spoke anywhere, apart from the TI offices. One of my biggest regrets was the language barrier that existed between us. I had remarkable opportunities to speak and connect with the people there, and was unable to take advantage of it. I imagine this is what Tuscany used to be – before the waves of tourists began to flock there.

barolo

A final note about transportation – a car really is the best way to get around here. There are no extensive public transportation systems that exist as far as I can tell, which might have contributed to the lack of traffic here. But the gorgeous windy roads that I was talking about previously? They great as a passenger, but it’s not easy to drive. People drive fast, the roads are skinny, and you can never see around the corners. But don’t let that deter you! What I’m saying is more along the lines of, say, perhaps try playing some Mario Kart prior for some practice?

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Poolish Croissants

First off, I’d like to say that it has been an incredibly busy and exciting month, hence the lack of updates. It all ended a few days ago, when I finally graduated from high school (that was pretty exciting…)! Now that it’s summer break, I’m free to bake as much as I want and I am most definitely taking advantage of all the time. I will, however, be heading off to Europe for the next few weeks, and you all will hear everything about it of course.

croissants

Now, I’ll always remember having a cappuccino and croissant for breakfast every single day in Italy, and I still crave that at times. The croissants you find in grocery stores, or often even in cafes, here just don’t compare, and I’d always thought making croissants would be an incredibly difficult and laborious process.

I was totally wrong (thankfully). While you do have to set aside half a day to make this (especially if you’re doing it for the first time), the steps are simple. The results, however, are incredible.

The most important, and main) ingredient is unsurprisingly butter. You basically wrap a piece of dough around a slab of butter, folding and rolling it out until there are too many layers to count, creating a laminated dough. That’s what makes it amazing. And since butter is the star here, the type/quality of butter is also important. Look for a high butterfat/low moisture content butter, like Plugra. Plugra can be found at Whole Foods, Bristol Farms, and Smart & Final (which I have found to be the cheapest).

Having butter as the main ingredient is also a little concerning, since I have no trouble eating three of these flaky and buttery croissants at a time. Every day.

Poolish Croissants, adapted from The Fresh Loaf 

Poolish

160 g all-purpose flour (I used King Arthur Flour)

160 g water

1/8 teaspoon instant yeast

Final dough

362 g all-purpose flour

135 g milk

67 g sugar

10 g salt

3.5 g (1+1/8 teaspoon) instant yeast

3.5 g malt (I omitted this, since I didn’t have any)

22 g butter, softened

poolish, all

287 g roll-in butter

1. Combine the poolish ingredients in a bowl, cover and let it ferment at room temperature for 8-12 hours until the surface is pebbled with bubbles.

2. In a stand mixer, combine the flour, milk, sugar, salt, yeast, malt and softened butter. Using the dough hook, and if using a KitchenAid mixer, mix on low (speed) 1 for 3 minutes. Then, increase to speed 2 and mix for 3-4 minutes to form a dough. Do not over-mix.

3. Flatten the dough into a disk, cover, and let it refrigerate for at least 2 hours, or over night.

4. Cut the roll-in butter into thinner chunks, and in between two sheets of plastic wrap, tap the butter to soften it, and roll into a 19×19 cm (7.5 x 7.5 inch) square. Return the butter to the fridge for 1-2 hours.

5. Remove the dough from the fridge, and on a lightly floured surface, roll it out to a 28×28 cm (11×11 inch) square. Place the roll-in butter slab onto the rolled out dough, so that the butter is diagonal from the dough. Fold the triangular edges of the dough over and seal the dough tightly so that no butter is visible and there make sure there aren’t parts of dough that don’t have butter. Try not to trap any air bubbles.

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6. Roll the dough (make sure you’re rolling out the butter as well when rolling the outer dough) out into a 20×60 cm (8×24 inch) rectangle. If you do end up with extra dough on the edges, cut those pieces off. Fold the rolled-out dough into thirds. Wrap up the dough in plastic, and stick it in the fridge for an hour. Repeat this process two more times (rolling it out into the rectangle and folding it up), making sure to refrigerate between each time, as you do NOT want the butter to melt at all.

7. After your final rolling and folding, refrigerate for 90 minutes and roll into a 23×90 cm (9×36 inch) rectangle. If you don’t have the space to roll out such a long rectangle, you may want to split the dough into two pieces, for easier handling. If you do cut it in half, roll each half into 23×45 cm (9×18 inch) pieces. Make sure to properly flour the surface and if you feel like your butter is getting warm, feel free to stick the dough back into the fridge before continuing. The dough should be 1/8 inches thick.

8. Cut the dough into equilateral triangles with a height of 23 cm and a base of 12 cm (4.5 inches). Refrigerate these pieces again.

9. After about 20 minutes, take them out and stretch each triangle so that it’s height is now 26 cm (10 inches). Start rolling the triangles up from the base TIGHTLY. Gently pull the top as you’re rolling from the base. You should be able to create 3 rolls.

10. Now, you are at a checkpoint. You can either proof your croissants now (get ready to bake them), freeze them to bake them at a later time, or you can stick them back into the fridge to proof and bake them the next day.

11. To proof, brush all the croissants with an egg wash and stick them into an oven barely heated at 80 F. Don’t forget to leave a good amount of space between each croissant, as it will grow a lot in the oven while baking. The croissants should somewhat grow and become really soft and jiggly. This process takes around 3-4 hours.

12. Remove the croissants from the oven and brush them with an egg wash again. Bring the oven up to 425 F, and bake the croissants for 10 minutes, and then bring the temperature down to 375 F, and bake for another 15 minutes.

Woohoo! You’re finally done! Let them cool down before digging in, and if you made too much to eat in a few days, freeze them and when you want to eat them, reheat them up at 375 F for 10-15 minutes and they’ll be just like new. Croissants fresh from the oven in the morning – sounds pretty good, eh?

Classic Italian Pizza, homemade

Gusta Pizza, Florence.

Home to the best pizza I’ve ever tasted.

gustapizza

We happened upon this place while utterly lost in Florence, after having attempted to visit the Pitti Palace, which was closed unfortunately. Gusta Pizza is located in an alleyway two blocks behind the palace and the guys at Gusta Pizza unfortunately spoke absolutely no English. I had my handy dandy Italian phrasebook with me, but it was absolutely useless. I tried my hand at a couple sentences, but they only shook their heads in confusion. We resorted to pointing and gesturing wildly at the menu, which worked out wonderfully. They were extremely patient with us, and my dad was so happy he bought one of the chefs a beer. Now this pizza was a little different from the pizzas you get around here. It was cooked in less than a minute in a stone oven, and it was topped with leafy greens and parmesan before serving. It was beautiful and utterly delicious. And I was determined to make it at home.

The first thing I did when I got back was get a pizza/baking stone. Best investment ever, if you ask me. While it’s no brick oven, the temperature gets much higher than with a regular baking pan and the crust tastes much better as a result.

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For the pizza itself, I decided to just make a simple pizza margherita, and top with arugula, parmesan, cherry tomatoes, and parmesan, like they did.

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For the dough, I actually doubled the amount given below to make two large pizzas. The size depends on how thin you roll it out, and I prefer it to be on the thin side. First, shape the dough into a round ball (by pushing the edges into the middle of the bottom) so that it is smooth on the surface. Then, on a lightly floured surface, use your fingers to push the dough down into a flat disk. At this point, you can use whatever fancy pizza dough stretching technique you may possess, but I broke out the rolling pin. I lightly rolled out the dough, alternating between stretching it with my hands and rolling it out. No need to squish the thing to death, but go ahead and pop the large air bubbles if there are any. If the dough keeps on going back to its original shape and the darn thing just won’t stay stretched out, let the dough rest for 10 minutes to relax the gluten and try again. Patiently.

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I don’t have a pizza peel, so I used the back of baking sheet with some parchment. The pizza goes onto the baking stone with the parchment, and is removed around 5 minutes into baking.

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I often find that the tomato sauce made with fresh tomatoes actually doesn’t turn out that great. Instead, I like to use the canned San Marzano tomatoes from Italy. It can be found at Trader Joe’s for 3.99.

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At first, I used this kosher shredded mozzarella from Costco (called Natural & Kosher) and it did not turn out at all. Somehow, the cheese just separated into a gooey mess under the high temperatures. I now stick with the ball mozzarella, which has more moisture and fares much better in the high temperature.

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Classic Italian Pizza

makes one pizza

pizza dough 

1 1/2 cups bread flour (240 grams)

2/3 cup warm water (157 grams)

1 teaspoon instant dry yeast

1/2 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons olive oil

1. In a small bowl, dissolve the yeast and sugar into the water. Set aside.

2. In a larger bowl, or in a mixer, add the flour and salt. Stir in the water and oil a little at a time, and knead until smooth and elastic.

3. Place dough in a lightly oiled bowl, cover, and let it rise at room temperature for 2-3 hours.

4. Roll out the dough to its proper size and now it’s ready for toppings.

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the rest of the pizza

1 can of tomatoes, preferably San Marzano

pinch of salt and pepper

half a ball of low moisture mozzarella

olive oil to drizzle

tossed arugula

sliced prosciutto

5-6 cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered depending on size

parmesan, shaved or chunks

1.Preheat your oven with the baking stone inside to as high as it will go. Mine went to 550 F.

2.Blend the canned tomatoes until smooth. Squeeze the extra liquid out first, to prevent the sauce from becoming too wet. Add in the salt and pepper to taste. There is no need to make this too salty, since the prosciutto and parmesan to be added later are really salty.

3. Spread the sauce onto the dough evenly. Top with mozzarella. For one pizza, I only used up half a ball.

4. Get the pizza onto the baking stone (I used parchment paper). Bake until the bottom is at least golden brown or even slightly charred, and the cheese is bubbling. At 550 F, it takes me 7-8 minutes.

5. Top pizza with the arugula, tomatoes, prosciutto, and parmesan. Serve immediately. This pizza should be eaten fresh due to the toppings. Take it from me – it’s not very good the next day…