Family recipes traverse Italy

Tortellini at Midnight, by Emiko Davies, published by Hardie Grant Books, RRP $52.
Tortellini at Midnight, by Emiko Davies, published by Hardie Grant Books, RRP $52.
Tracing recipes back generations spanning the entire length of Italy, Emiko Davies tells the story of her family through food in this edited extract from Tortellini at Midnight.

In Tortellini at Midnight, named after a tradition her husband's nonno (grandfather) began to ring in the New Year, Emiko Davies has gathered the favourite recipes of her Italian family.

Davies, grew up in Australia and China with a Japanese mother and Australian father, while her husband Marco grew up in a small town in Tuscany living with his parents and grandparents in a house built by his great-grandfather.

The couple now live in Florence and Davies sees the book as a way to share the family-friendly recipes they consider heirlooms.

This beautiful book whets your appetite for eating your way through Italy starting with the first tip - eating at an Italian table means following a strict order: you start with antipasto, a small dish that will not ruin your appetite, but complement the dishes to follow, then you have ''primo'' a course of rice, pasta or soup followed by ''secondo'' the main course of meat or fish accompanied by ''contorni'', side dishes of vegetables or salads. The meal is finished with ''dolce'' or dessert.

As well as telling her husband's family story, each chapter which is based on a region of Italy, starts with a brief history and description of the area, accompanied by photographs giving you a feel for the place.

Each recipe comes with an introduction about the history of the dish, how and when it is eaten in Italy and its connection to her family.


Photos: Lauren Bamford
Photos: Lauren Bamford
Italy Ziti al Forno (baked ziti)

My mother-in-law's version of this southern Italian classic was always a rather simple but satisfying one: tomato sauce flavoured with garlic and basil, layered with cheese (scamorza was always their favourite, but you can also use mozzarella) and, of course, ziti: long, thick tubes of pasta that my daughter likes to pretend are drumsticks - they're very effective when beating on pots.

But the way you'll often find it - alla Pugliese - is with the hearty additions of lots of little polpettine (hazelnut-sized meatballs), or sometimes even slices of hard-boiled egg, sausage, prosciutto or mortadella.

I like to stick to the family's simple version with tomato, basil and scamorza for a weeknight meal, but Marco prefers it with the addition of pork and fennel sausages, crumbled then rolled into small pieces, like quick meatballs.

Serves 6

80ml (⅓ cup) extra-virgin olive oil
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
400g tomato passata (pureed tomatoes)
handful of fresh basil leaves
300g ziti or penne pasta
250g (about 2) pork and fennel
sausages, skins removed (optional)
250g scamorza or mozzarella, sliced thinly
50g pecorino, grated

Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil.

In the meantime, begin preparing a tomato sauce by heating 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a saucepan over a low, gentle heat. Add the garlic clove and infuse the oil for a couple of minutes, then add the passata and about 250ml (1 cup) water.

Season with some salt and pepper and bring the sauce to a steady simmer over a medium heat. Cook for 15-20 minutes, or until the sauce has reduced and thickened slightly. Just before taking off the heat, add about 5-6 basil leaves. Set aside until needed.

Once the pot of water is boiling, add the ziti (they are rather long, so break them in half if necessary to fit them in the pot). Cook until al dente, referring to the packet instructions (minus 1 or 2 minutes of cooking time). Drain and toss the ziti with the sauce until well coated.

Heat the oven to 180degC.

In a 20cm x 30cm baking dish, add 1 tablespoon of olive oil and about 2 tablespoons of the tomato sauce. Now add half of the ziti and (if using) scatter over half of the sausage - broken up into small pieces or rolled into small meatballs - half of the scamorza and half of the pecorino. Repeat with ziti, sausage and cheese, finishing with remaining olive oil.

Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until you can see the sauce bubbling around the edges and the top has formed a nice golden crust.

Polpette di Lesso (deep-fried meatballs)

When I make these, I have this image in my head of tiny Nonna Lina standing by the stovetop, frying, creating an enormous pyramid of these polpette, only to have people pop in and out of the kitchen, stealing the one on the top, too hot to even hold let alone stick in your mouth.

Although I never met her (she passed away two months before I met Marco), I feel like I know her, especially when I hear the stories of her cooking.

This is probably the most delicious thing you can do with leftover meat, and it is a very Tuscan way of putting leftover boiled or roasted meat to good use. In fact, I am partial to making lesso just to turn it into these meatballs.

And when you have leftover polpette (incredibly, it happens), they are delicious cold (Marcos father, Carlo, loved them this way, and they are ideal to put in a lunchbox or take on a picnic), but Tuscans often prepare them rifatte (see the recipe below), which is probably the best ever dish of leftover leftovers ever invented. With each reinvention, they just keep getting better.

This makes about 20 polpette, which you could just as easily serve as part of an antipasto for a gathering or as a meal, with salad, for four.

Makes 20 (approx)


2 medium floury potatoes
400g cooked beef, such as lesso or roasted beef
2 eggs, beaten
40g parmesan, finely grated
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
handful of flat-leaf (Italian) parsley, finely chopped
80g dry breadcrumbs
vegetable oil, for frying

2 Tbsp olive oil
1 garlic clove
700g tomato passata (pureed tomatoes)
handful of fresh herbs, such as flat-leaf (Italian) parsley or basil

To make the polpette, first peel and roughly chop the potatoes. Place in a saucepan of cold water and bring to the boil over a medium heat. Cook until the potatoes are easily pierced with a fork, then drain and mash with a generous pinch of salt.

Finely chop the beef (or pulse in a food processor, if you prefer). Place in a bowl along with the mashed potato, the eggs, parmesan, garlic and parsley and combine well, adding a pinch of salt taken with three fingers and some freshly ground black pepper.

Taking about 2 tablespoons of the mixture at a time, form cylindrical meatballs and place on a plate until you have used all the mixture.

Place the breadcrumbs in a shallow dish and roll each meatball to coat completely. Set aside. Pour enough vegetable oil into a wide frying pan to come about 3cm of the way up and heat over a medium-high heat.

The oil is ready when a cube of bread dropped into the oil browns in 15 seconds.

Fry the meatballs in a single layer for about 3 minutes on each side, or until deep brown. Drain on paper towels and salt while still hot. Serve immediately.

To make good use of any leftover meatballs, prepare a tomato sauce for polpette rifatte by heating the olive oil and garlic together over a low-medium heat in a frying pan until the garlic is fragrant but not coloured, about 35 minutes. Add the passata and 125ml (½ cup) water, along with a three-fingered pinch of salt and some pepper.

Tear over the fresh herbs and bring to a gentle simmer, cooking the sauce for about 20 minutes, uncovered. If it begins to reduce too much, add a splash more water the sauce should be fairly liquid rather than thick, as the breaded meatballs tend to soak it up.

Add the meatballs to the sauce, cover and continue cooking for 5 minutes, or until the meatballs are thoroughly warmed.

Torta di Mele di Angela (Angela's apple cake)

My mother-in-law, Angela, has a recipe book: a large hardcover agenda from 1981 where she writes down recipes she likes or wants to try. They're scattered randomly, scrawled on the days of the week where you would normally record birthdays, appointments and reminders. It's rather impractical because you have to flick through 365 days to find the scribbled recipe you're looking for, but she has been using it diligently for nearly 40 years.

This apple cake was the first recipe she wrote in it, and although she doesn't remember any more where it came from, it was one that she made often when Marco was a child.

I love it because it's quite different from the usual Tuscan apple cake, which is a simple cake topped with a single layer of sliced apples. I suspect this version is not even Tuscan at all, as it requires quite a good amount of butter. The cake on the bottom is rather dense and crumbly - a support for all the apples that melt down into a surprisingly thin layer, topped with a veil of butter and sugar.

It's absolutely delicious just out of the oven, still warm, and I would say always does better with a bit of warming up even the next day or so. The fact that Angela calls this cake la torta di mele e panna - the cake with apple and cream to distinguish it from a regular apple cake tells you that you should always serve this with freshly whipped cream.

Serves 8

250ml (1 cup) freshly whipped cream, to serve

200g butter, softened, plus extra for greasing
60g sugar
1 egg
150g (1 cup) plain (all-purpose) flour
2 tsp baking powder
zest and juice of 1 lemon
650g (about 4) apples, peeled and sliced
splash of brandy or rum

80g butter, softened
80g (⅓ cup) sugar
50g (⅓ cup) plain (all-purpose) flour

Heat the oven to 180degC and grease and line a 20cm round cake tin.

For the cake, combine the butter, sugar, egg, flour, baking powder, lemon zest and juice and a pinch of salt until creamy. Press into the prepared cake tin. Layer over the apple slices and sprinkle them with brandy.

For the topping, rub or mix together the butter, sugar and flour in a bowl. Top the apples with this mixture and place in the oven. Bake for 30 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and the apples have cooked down and become tender.

Allow to cool (or eat warm, my preference) and serve with some softly whipped cream.

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