Italian cooking and Italian flavorings are so popular in America that once-exotic ingredients, such as pine nuts, ricotta cheese and balsamic vinegar, are now widely available in grocery stores and specialty food marts.
And even though the ingredients may be a little unusual, most of the preparations are quite simple. Home chefs should have no trouble duplicating these straightforward and delicious delicacies.
The first two recipes are from "The Heritage of Italian Cooking," by Lorenza de'Medici (Random House, 1990, $40). Ms. de'Medici notes in the recipe introduction, "The ricotta can be mixed with chocolate broken into tiny pieces or with mint-flavored sweets very finely chopped, which will give it a distinctive fresh taste."
Watermelon and ricotta Serves six.
1 completely ripe watermelon (about 4 pounds)
juice of 1/2 lemon
1/3 cup superfine sugar
6 ounces ricotta
1 cup heavy cream
pinch of ground cinnamon
Cut a slice from the top of the watermelon and discard; scoop out flesh and discard the seeds. Refrigerate the empty shell.
Cut the flesh into cubes and put them in a bowl with the lemon juice and half the sugar. Refrigerate for 2 hours, stirring the mixture from time to time, so that the flavors blend. After half an hour, drain off the liquid that will have formed and stir it into the ricotta. To complete, add the remaining sugar and cream to the ricotta. Add the cubes of watermelon. Mix thoroughly, and fill the watermelon shell with the mixture. Sprinkle cinnamon over and serve.
Apple cream with almond praline Serves six.
1 cup superfine sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
6 ounces chopped blanched almonds
1 tablespoon almond oil
7 Golden Delicious apples
1 tablespoon butter
1 handful mint leaves
1 cup whipped cream
Put 3/4 cup of the sugar in a saucepan with the lemon juice and almonds. Cook over moderate heat until the sugar caramelizes and becomes quite dark in color. Coat a plate with the almond oil. Pour the praline over the plate and let it cool completely.
Peel and slice 6 of the apples. Cook with the butter and mint in a wide skillet over moderate heat. When quite soft, push through a sieve held over a saucepan. Add the remaining sugar and stir, to let the mixture dry out a little, over moderate heat. Remove from heat; set aside to cool. Mix in the whipped cream. Spoon into a serving bowl.
Pound or chop the almond praline and scatter over the apple cream. Refrigerate for about 2 hours. Garnish with slices of the remaining apple.
The next recipe is from the "Italy the Beautiful Cookbook" (The Knapp Press, 1988, $45),with recipes by Lorenza de'Medici, text by Patrizia Passigli.
"These little cakes are often served in cafes with a cappuccino," the introduction notes. "To serve as dessert, spoon a fresh fruit puree over them."
Rice cakes Serves six.
1/4 cup raisins
1 cup arborio rice
2 cups milk
1/2 cup sugar
grated rind of 1/2 lemon
pinch of ground cinnamon
4 ounces butter
4 egg yolks
1 egg white
Soak the raisins in water to cover until needed. Boil the rice in 4 cups of boiling water for 5 minutes; drain. Bring milk and sugar to a boil, add rice, lemon rind and cinnamon. Cook over low heat until rice has absorbed all the milk, stirring constantly. Stir in butter, drained raisins and egg yolks, and let cool. Whip the egg white until stiff and fold into the rice mixture.
Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Pour mixture into 6 buttered individual molds and bake for 45 minutes, or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.
Unmold onto individual plates, sprinkle with sifted powdered sugar and serve.
This recipe, for a traditional cool dessert, is from Claudia Roden's "The Good Food of Italy, Region by Region" (Alfred A. Knopf Inc., 1989, $24.95). This dish is from Veneto, the area that includes Verona, Padua and Venice.
Chocolate frozen mousse Serves six.
8 ounces bitter or dark chocolate
3 tablespoons milk
6 eggs, separated
4 tablespoon cognac
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
Melt the chocolate with the milk over boiling water. Then beat in the egg yolks vigorously, one at a time, and add the cognac. Whip the cream and fold it in. Whip the egg whites until stiff and fold them in gently. Pour into a bowl and put into the freezer for several hours until the mixture hardens. Take it out about 1 hour before serving.
Here's a pastry recipe from Guiliano Bugialli for cenci, or "rags," which are deep-fried snack cookies. He notes in the introduction, "The dough for cenci is fundamentally like that for making pasta, except that it is flavored with rum. After resting an hour, the little squares of pasta are deep-fried and sprinkled with sugar."
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 extra-large eggs
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons white rum
pinch of salt
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 quart vegetable oil (see note)
1/2 cup confectioners' sugar
Place the flour in a mound on a pasta board and make a well in it. Put the eggs, oil, rum, salt and sugar in the well, then mix the ingredients in the well with a fork, working outward little by little to absorb all the flour.
Knead the dough until very smooth (15 to 20 minutes), then cover with a cotton dish towel for 1 hour.
With a rolling pin, roll the dough out to a sheet about 1/8 -inch thick, then cut into rectangles, 1 inch wide and 2 inches long, with a pastry wheel.
Heat the vegetable oil in a deep fryer; prepare a serving dish by lining it with paper towels.
When the oil is very hot (about 375 degrees), place the rectangles, a few at a time, in it to fry. When golden on both sides (about 1 minute), place them on the prepared serving dish to drain.
When all the cenci are cooked and placed on the dish, remove the paper towels and sprinkle confectioners' sugar generously over the cookies. Serve hot.
Note: Mr. Bugialli says in a section of his books called "Some Basic Ingredients," "The cooking oil most used in Italy -- light and really completely tasteless -- is a mixed seed oil called, generically, olio di semi. Outside of Italy, this mixture may be approximated with 2/3 corn oil and 1/3 sunflower (not safflower) oil."
This last simple recipe for dressed fruit comes from "Modern Italian Cooking" by Biba Caggiano (Fireside Books/Simon & Schuster, 1992, $14), a native of Bologna, Italy, who's now owner and chef of the Sacramento, Calif., restaurant Biba.
Here's part of her note about the recipe: "Balsamic vinegar is finally available in this country, though most of it is mass-produced; it is even possible to find a more precious, older vinegar in specialized stores. Balsamic vinegar varies in strength. The older the vinegar, the more concentrated and aromatic it becomes."
with balsamic vinegar
Serves four to six.
3 cups fresh strawberries
1/3 cup sugar
Wash the strawberries under cool running water. Remove the stems and dry the strawberries with paper towels. If the strawberries are large, cut them into halves or thirds; if they are small, leave them whole.
Put the strawberries in a large bowl. Add the sugar and a few drops of balsamic vinegar. Toss gently to blend. A bit more sugar or vinegar might be needed. Taste and adjust to your liking. Refrigerate for one hour. When ready to serve, spoon the strawberries into chilled glasses.