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Let's Discuss Italian Ragu


Kevin72
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So, I recently cooked what is certainly one of my favorite single dishes in the Italian repertoire, Ragu Bolognese. Seems to have generated lots of interest and cooking. And certainly this is not to try to move the discussion out of my Year of Cooking thread, but I just thought that such a heavyweight deserved its own topic. So, let's do this. Anything at all ragu bolognese related:

Historical facts, debates, etc.

Where is the best version you've had in Italy? Elsewhere?

What version do you use? What meats do you use? Anything unusual in your version? Anything off limits that drive you nuts when you see it in other recipes? How long do you cook it? What pastas do you serve it with? Stand-alone meal or part of a full feast?

I want a good, clean fight folks.

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No fight here, Kevin.

I suppose that I make ragu once a month or so. Since there are only two of us, the process makes more than one meal and bags of the stuff go into the freezer.

I have followed Marcella's recipe with some variants, such as using ground pork, veal and beef and sometimes some chicken livers. I'm pretty diligent about reducing wine then milk and adding canned tomatoes. I cook the stuff at least four hours, stirring occasionally and being careful not to let things burn.

Ragu Bolognese requires substantial pasta like penne, not sissy shapes or fine spaghetti.

And although I've been to Italy thirteen times since '98 I can't remember ever having ragu there at all. Shame, and will correct in March.

Am addicted to your year's work (pleasure).

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It's funny, I wonder if there are any home cooks in the United States who didn't learn how to make ragu from using Marcella Hazan's recipe.

A few Christmases ago, to give my overworked British stepmother a break, I made Marcella's ragu for the lot of us. This was in Connecticut where there is a sizeable Italian-American population. They had never had the stuff before and were as transfixed as I was when I first used her cookbooks.

I just checked out an old issue of Cook's Illustrated (Jan/Feb 1999) which boasts the "Best Italian-Style Meat Sauce" on its cover.

Basically, it's Marcella's recipe, except a "meatloaf" mixture of ground beef, veal & pork is recommended. A second variation uses chopped pancetta and RED wine vs. white.

Kevin mentions most of the divergences I have tried, except one. I like to throw in chopped, pre-soaked dried porcini sometimes, especially when stuffing a baked polenta. I use white wine instead of water to soak the mushrooms and then strain the liquid to incorporate it into the ragu, adding more white wine if it's not quite the amount specified in the recipe.

This is a great topic for a forum and an inspiration for trying new things.

One question, though, might we broaden the topic to include other ragus? That may be the subject of a new thread, too, once this particular one is no longer current.

"Viciousness in the kitchen.

The potatoes hiss." --Sylvia Plath

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I suppose that I make ragu once a month or so.  Since there are only two of us, the process makes more than one meal and bags of the stuff go into the freezer.

I've done that the past few times I've made it. I even made a batch one year and froze it in tupperware containers to give away as gifts. Just found one of them from two years ago buried at the bottom of my freezer. :sad:

A second variation uses chopped pancetta and RED wine vs. white.

The red wine is something that I cringe at. I think it'd be too strong a flavor in there and not blend in the way white does.

One question, though, might we broaden the topic to include other ragus?  That may be the subject of a new thread, too, once this particular one is no longer current.

It crossed my mind when I was making the topic last night. I'm open to that, though I don't think I can edit the title anymore. Maybe Alberto or another mod can rename the thread to a more generic "Italian Ragu Thread" title or something . . .

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Another topic I forgot to mention: tomatoes vs. tomato paste. Marcella goes for the canned tomatoes in her recipe and that's my preference, but many others advocate the tomato paste route. When I had it in Bologna I think they used paste for that restaurant's recipe as well since it was very full-on and meaty in flavor.

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Kevin mentions most of the divergences I have tried, except one.  I like to throw in chopped, pre-soaked dried porcini sometimes, especially when stuffing a baked polenta.  I use white wine instead of water to soak the mushrooms and then strain the liquid to incorporate it into the ragu, adding more white wine if it's not quite the amount specified in the recipe.

In Splendid Table, Lynne Rossetto Kasper mentions a number of different variants including dried mushrooms and chicken livers. I guess this is further evidence to broaden this topic to include all manner of ragus, since the classic Bolognese doesn't seem to have the mushrooms, livers, or red wine elements.

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I use Marcella's recipe as well. I sometimes add a bit of tomatopaste if I happen to have some lying around in the fridge, but canned tomatoes always go in as well.

I have used red wine instead if white.. again, if that's what I had available at the time. Sometimes I add some good stock or gravy.. if I happen to have some in the fridge :shock:

One thing I would like to bring up. I have made this sauce many, many times now, both just for me and my husband (making a big pot and freezing portions) and for company. I have found that other people don't always appreciate this sauce. Many times I have seen people put mountains of cheese on their pasta, or they just keep on adding salt and pepper. I think that when you expect a 'tomato'sauce, Ragu can be a disappointment. The flavor really is unique in it's mellow sweetness, but I guess maybe if you are used to more 'in your face' Italian flavors, you could also call it 'bland'. Not that I would call it that. But one might. :wacko:

Has anyone else had this experience?

Oh and one more thing. I had ragu with homemade pasta for the first time this week. Now I know: ragu and fresh pasta are made for eachother. So, so good.

Edited by Chufi (log)
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It's funny, I wonder if there are any home cooks in the United States who didn't learn how to make ragu from using Marcella Hazan's recipe.

My folks and I learned it from Ada Boni's Il Talismano della cucina.

We usually used red wine, such as a light Burgundy, until my father was no longer allowed to have red wine (cooked or raw) for health reasons, whereupon we switched to using a white wine like Soave. In terms of meat, we usually use chopped beef only. We like mushrooms and use them whenever possible.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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One thing I would like to bring up. I have made this sauce many, many times now, both just for me and my husband (making a big pot and freezing portions) and for company. I have found that other people  don't always appreciate this sauce. Many times I have seen people put mountains of cheese on their pasta, or they just keep on adding salt and pepper. I think that when you expect a 'tomato'sauce, Ragu can be a disappointment. The flavor really is unique in it's mellow sweetness, but I guess maybe if you are used to more 'in your face' Italian flavors, you could also call it 'bland'. Not that I would call it that. But one might.  :wacko:

Has anyone else had this experience?

Oh and one more thing. I had ragu with homemade pasta for the first time this week. Now I know: ragu and fresh pasta are made for eachother. So, so good.

See my original post. Never had a problem cooking for friends, colleagues or fellow expatriates abroad. With family members ranging from ages 4 to 63, everyone gobbled without exception. Since I had made a very large amount of ragu that Christmas, my stepmother rapidly froze individual portions RIGHT after we ate so that none of her house guests would find it while foraging through the fridge. The stepsister who really cooks well and married someone with similar gifts asked for the recipe.

I think everyone liked it so much BECAUSE they were used to jarred tomato sauces or Italian-American recipes for tomato sauce with sausage or meatballs that are heavy on oregano, basil and garlic. The novelty was appreciated. Then again, most do not splurge on Parmigiano Reggiano either and I am sure that was a major part of the charm.

As for fresh pasta, indeed. Another dish that often surprises Americans is an authentic lasagna with ragu and hand-made spinach pasta. Many of us are raised on large pans piled high with ricotta and mozzarella (instead of Parm & white sauce) and eggless noodles. A quick disclaimer: I own and appreciate Lidia's Italian-American Kitchen and am glad to have grown up in an Italian-American neighborhood.

Edited by Pontormo (log)

"Viciousness in the kitchen.

The potatoes hiss." --Sylvia Plath

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After doing some research years ago and googling a bit now, there seem to be four incompatible theories (even in Bologna) about the amount of tomatos used for a "real" ragù Bolognese:

a) tomatos (canned or fresh) are admissible

b) (fresh) tomatos are admissible during season only

c) passata di pomodoro (tomato paste) is used in tiny amounts only (1-3 teaspoon in a reasonable amount of ragù mainly for colourization

d) there's no tomato at all in a "real" ragù Bolognese

Personally, I prefer c), cooked on the "dry", very "meaty" side.

The d) fraction calls all other ragùs as "ground meat sauce with tomato". Some recipes call for beef chopped manually by knive, just like carne crudo all' Albese (raw meat Alba style).

Make it as simple as possible, but not simpler.

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It's funny, I wonder if there are any home cooks in the United States who didn't learn how to make ragu from using Marcella Hazan's recipe.

A few Christmases ago, to give my overworked British stepmother a break, I made Marcella's ragu for the lot of us.  This was in Connecticut where there is a sizeable Italian-American population.  They had never had the stuff before and were as transfixed as I was when I first used her cookbooks.

I just checked out an old issue of Cook's Illustrated (Jan/Feb 1999) which boasts the "Best Italian-Style Meat Sauce" on its cover.

Basically, it's Marcella's recipe, except a "meatloaf" mixture of ground beef, veal & pork is recommended.  A second variation uses chopped pancetta and RED wine vs. white.

Kevin mentions most of the divergences I have tried, except one.  I like to throw in chopped, pre-soaked dried porcini sometimes, especially when stuffing a baked polenta.  I use white wine instead of water to soak the mushrooms and then strain the liquid to incorporate it into the ragu, adding more white wine if it's not quite the amount specified in the recipe.

This is a great topic for a forum and an inspiration for trying new things.

One question, though, might we broaden the topic to include other ragus?  That may be the subject of a new thread, too, once this particular one is no longer current.

We have done the same Cook's Illustrated version many times and love it. And it does freeze well. We use penne and have made a lasagna too. Great sauce.

Cooking is chemistry, baking is alchemy.

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Inspired by Adam Baltic's blog from a few months ago, I have shed the shackles of cookbookery and embraced an improvisational approach to ragu-making. Beats going to the supermarket, too. If I don't make fresh pasta then it's the strozapretti from Rustichella d'Abruzzo. The price tends to embarass me back to making fresh pasta :blush: but damn it is good.

edit: I have to admit I made Hazan's version for the longest time but it just never became a favorite for me. I don't like the texture of cooked ground beef by itself...too hamburger helper. My version now is some vague combination of several Batali and Bugialli recipes, which I like better.

Boris, in d) if not tomatoes, then cream?

Edited by Behemoth (log)
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Boris, in d) if not tomatoes, then cream?

No cream. My recipe (combined from two or three books) is roughly:

2 oz pancetta

1 carot

1 celery

1 onion

1 laurel

2 sp butter

- make a well glazed sofritto. Add

7 oz ground beef (purists insist in finely cut and chopped meat)

1 tsp flour

5 oz broth

- and cook for 30-50 min. During the last minutes, one can add 1 oz chicken liver to enhance the meaty flavour of the ragù.

I think this recipe is well within the Italian idea of concentrating rather pure or enhanced flavours in a sauce (Napolitanian tomato sauce, pesto all' Genovese) and to serve this in rather small amounts (my recipe is serving 4-6 persons) with the noodles.

I had a lot of ragù in Piemonte as an immensly popular sauce with tajerin (noodels), and it was always brownish/greyish in colour and definitely never red by a noticable amount of tomatos.

Make it as simple as possible, but not simpler.

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Ragu is something that is at the heart of most italian regions, cities, towns, and families; each with its own signature. since i moved to Italy a few months ago, there are two that stick out in my mind.

Vincisgrassi: this is a lasagna from the Marche region. the tomato ragu used here draws its unique flavors from the livers, hearts, gizzards, and coxcombs used in the sauce. Ground beef as also used, but mainly to bulk up the sauce and balance out the strong organmeats.

The second is a duck ragu. Its nothing fancy, just a simple tomato ragu, but using small diced duck meat; finished with a healthy handful of grated Parm. Its phenomenal.

i'm a fan on canned tomatoes, but certain dishes call for paste either out of tradition or necessity, and there are some incredible tomato pastes out there. to each his own.

"Si nasce con questa vocazione: non è un mestiere, è una vita."
~Romano Tamani
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Ragu is something that is at the heart of most italian regions, cities, towns, and families; each with its own signature. since i moved to Italy a few months ago, there are two that stick out in my mind. 

Vincisgrassi: this is a lasagna from the Marche region. the tomato ragu used here draws its unique flavors from the livers, hearts, gizzards, and coxcombs used in the sauce. Ground beef as also used, but mainly to bulk up the sauce and balance out the strong organmeats.

The second is a duck ragu. Its nothing fancy, just a simple tomato ragu, but using small diced duck meat; finished with a healthy handful of grated Parm. Its phenomenal.

i'm a fan on canned tomatoes, but certain dishes call for paste either out of tradition or necessity, and there are some incredible tomato pastes out there. to each his own.

I couldn't help but notice the quote from Romano Tomani. Thanks for putting it in.

Romano, of course, fits the quote to a tee. He was born to be a chef and have that restaurant. I've seen that some on the Italy and the Italian cuisine forum are not fans of L'Ambasciata and/or of Romano. Each to his own. My wife and I are major fans of both. We went there for the first time in 1980, and as Romano tells everyone, we were his first American customers. Subsequent to that time, we've spent a lot of time in Quistello, once even spending the night in the hotel next door (don't do it). At the time, there was no cortile, and what is now the "inside room" leading to the restrooms, was the only dining area in the restaurant. There was seating for maybe 30 covers. The toilets were on the far side of where the cortile is now; they were Turkish.

We used to stay in Salsomaggiore Terme and take day trips to have lunch on the "other", east side, of the Autostrada. At that time there were no good restaurants on the west side except in Parma and Cafrangna. So, we would go for these long rides to Maleo, Nadia and Antonio, La Buca in Zibello, Ceresole in Cremona, Da Valentino in Caorso (now the wonderful barolo wine producer) Goito, Canterelli, even as far as Pierantonio's place, Vecchia Lugana on Garda. My wife had read of Romano in an Italian food magazine, it sounded good and we decided to try it. Love at first sight. We actually went back for lunch the next day (we were a bit younger then and could do two of those meals back to back, as well as two dinners back to back... not anymore).

I won't bore anyone, today, with food memories of Quistello (will save that for another time), but did go down in the basement to pull out a menu from the early 80s. reading the menu makes me wish I had been there today for Sunday lunch. These were some of the dishes offered (I can taste them now):

Antipasti:

sformato di rane su salsa pomodoro

insalata di coniglio, olio aceto balsalmico

lingua salmistrata calda e salsa verde

piedini, nervette e fagioli (piatto caldo)

uova fi faraona in slsa di zucchine

Minestre:

tagliatelle verdi, piselli e menta (it was Spring)

tortelli verdi di faraona e ricotta

bigoli con pancetta e pepe nero

riso con pesce gatto e erbette

Secondo:

stufato di lumache e verdure

arrosto di piccione in aceto e miele

coniglo disossato e ripieno di erbette

trippa alla Quistellese

anguila saporita alla salvia e purea di rape rosse

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"i can taste them now"

Food memories are never boring, if they were none of us would be here reading. Thanks for the memory, i'm planning on eating there in the near future.

"Si nasce con questa vocazione: non è un mestiere, è una vita."
~Romano Tamani
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i have to confess that i have never had a ragu bolognese that i really, really loved.

many years ago, i did make the ragu napoletana from francesconi and fell instantly, madly in love with that. i make it a couple of times a winter now. she uses tomato paste, which makes a very big difference in flavor, but she adds some puree as well. she cooks a big pork butt in the ragu, which you can pull before serving. i usually serve the ragu with fresh pasta to start (very, very light appetizers, if any), then the sliced pork butt with some kind of very plain contorno, maybe broccolini or a bitter green. one of my favorite winter meals. here's my adaptation of it:

NEAPOLITAN RAGU

1 1/2 pounds boneless pork butt, in 1 piece

Salt, pepper

2 tablespoons finely minced parsley

1 pound onions, quartered

2 cloves garlic

2 ounces chopped pancetta

1/4 cup olive oil

2 1/2 cups dry red wine

1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste

1 cup tomato puree

Water

1/2 pound Italian sausage, crumbled

Season pork all over with salt and pepper to taste and parsley.

In meat grinder or food processor, chop together onions, garlic and pancetta.

Cook pork, ground pancetta mixture and olive oil in large casserole, preferably earthenware, covered over very low heat, turning meat only once, until onions begin to color, about 1 hour. Add red wine and cook, stirring occasionally. After about 2 hours, onions will be well-browned and most liquid will be evaporated.

Raise heat to medium, add 2 to 3 tablespoons tomato paste and cook, stirring constantly, until tomato paste mixes in and becomes dark brown. Repeat, using 2 to 3 tablespoons at a time, until all tomato paste is used. Add tomato puree and 1/4 cup water, lower heat, cover and cook another 2 hours, adding water from time to time to keep sauce from drying out.

When pork is tender enough that meat fork slides in easily, remove from sauce and set aside. Add sausage and continue cooking sauce 1 hour more. Sauce should be "dark, unctuous, shiny and thick."

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Thank you for sharing your recipe, Russ.

It's quite different from the ground/minced beef, wine, milk ragus I've made and I look forward to trying it. Pork butt, pancetta, sausage... sounds great. Thank you for sharing your menu ideas as well.

"Under the dusty almond trees, ... stalls were set up which sold banana liquor, rolls, blood puddings, chopped fried meat, meat pies, sausage, yucca breads, crullers, buns, corn breads, puff pastes, longanizas, tripes, coconut nougats, rum toddies, along with all sorts of trifles, gewgaws, trinkets, and knickknacks, and cockfights and lottery tickets."

-- Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 1962 "Big Mama's Funeral"

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This is my basic ragu from the food blog. I tend to change what it around quite a bit and I don't really think that there are any set rules as such, just some common sense things to consider and also some aspects of personal taste. However, these are my creations and are not really 'traditional' in any Italian region, although some times it is close. If I was going to make a traditiional ragu (from whatever region), I would hit the books and make some judgements based on that.

Some observations:

Red wine. Kevin says No. Is he an idiot then, no. I think that red wine can be very good in certain ragu, especially ones that have chicken livers or use a high proportion of milk or other dairy. White wine can be great with chicken livers, but I think that with the combination of dairy it is not so good. As I tend to use less tomato then most, I think that the contribution of acid by the wine is important, in some cases I actually use red wine vinegar.

Meat. I think that with ground/minced/finely chopped meat ragu, pork is essential as beef and veal tend to fall apart after 2-3 hours of cooking, while pork keeps it's structure and provides texture. Also flavour obviously.

Veg. These are just as important as the meat in a ground meat ragu. Items like carrot and onion provide a sugar source, which I think is essential. Often ragu that taste flat or 'not quite right' can be improved by the addition of a pinch of sugar.

Less sauce more pasta. Ragu isn't a bowl of chilie. The origin of the word is french - ragoûter- "to revive the taste of", so I reckon it should allow the pasta to shine, not drown.

Edited by Adam Balic (log)
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Thanks for all the input so far everyone!

Along the lines of what Adam said above, I would like to clarify that I only meant red wine as related to the ragu Bolognese recipes I've seen and tried. I have made other ragus with red, and even marsala (I like it with the giblets and chicken livers, or mushrooms), and if I were to go with the arch-tradtional recipe for Bolognese above that has no tomatoes at all, I'd definitely want red wine in there for more body.

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Thanks for all the input so far everyone!

Along the lines of what Adam said above, I would like to clarify that I only meant red wine as related to the ragu Bolognese recipes I've seen and tried.  I have made other ragus with red, and even marsala (I like it with the giblets and chicken livers, or mushrooms),

Kevin, I'm fairly new to eGullet, but you have had undue influence on my cooking lately!

I picked up a copy of Bugialli's "Foods of Tuscany" after seeing it mentioned in your blog, and the book went with me on my trip this last weekend to visit some old college friends. When it fell to me to make the main course for dinner, this thread was in the back of my mind. I ended up making a double recipe of Bugialli's recipe for Tuscan Ragu. The cooking smells had everyone circling the kitchen like hungry wolves. The red wine I used in the recipe was cheap red plonk, but it melded perfectly into the sauce by the end of the cooking. We made fresh pasta for the ragu using Marcella Hazan's basic recipe. The sauce was a big hit! After the meal, one friend asked me how much sugar went into the sauce to make it so sweet. He was surprised when I told him there wasn't any--it all came from the veggies.

I definitely fit in with Pontormo's earlier observation--I first learned to make ragu from Marcella's book. I liked it, but didn't love it. I like this version better; maybe the difference is the red wine instead of white? After reading about the other variations out there, I have to wonder if ragu really started out as a way of using up bits of thin-n-that from around the kitchen. It's hunting season here in South Dakota, and I'm tempted to start my own "traditional" Dakota-style Ragu featuring venison, pheasant and goose, plus some locally-raised pork.

April Sorenson

One cantaloupe is ripe and lush/Another's green, another's mush/I'd buy a lot more cantaloupe/ If I possessed a fluoroscope. Ogden Nash

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If you can, see if you can track down The Splendid Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper as she has a recipe for a ragu with game meats.  I'd be very interested to hear how that goes.

Thanks for the tip. I think that the local bookstore has copies in stock.

April Sorenson

One cantaloupe is ripe and lush/Another's green, another's mush/I'd buy a lot more cantaloupe/ If I possessed a fluoroscope. Ogden Nash

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Trying to define the "real and only" recipe of the Ragù alla Bolognese is impossible, in my opinion.

Here each family has it's own "recipe" that is the result of different habits, different taste, different tradition.

In my family, and I think also in other family, the ragù hasn't really a recipe but only some general rules to follow. These rules are followed by my mother because her mother follwed them before, because her mother do the same in the past..... and so on :smile:

The rules are:

- melt butter, add chopped onions, carrots and celery and cook for a long time on a very low heat. The onion shouldn't fry.

- Add ground meat: beef (3 units), pork (2 units) and sausages paste (0,5 units).

- add herbs: my mother usually add 4 or 5 leaves of sage.

- cook the meat and let it "consume" the water that has produced.

- season with salt

- cover the meat with milk and continue cooking until there is no more milk.

- add tomato: a little quantity of tomato sauce or fresh peeled tomatoes.

- cook for a very long time: at the ent there will be no more visible tomato but the fat in the ragu will be red.

The heat must be very very very low.

To reduce fat now we use oil instead of butter.

Edited by Staximo (log)
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      Tips and tricks:
      1.Keep nuts in a warm oven ( about 150° F / 65° C ) until you add them. Adding room temperature or colder nuts will reduce working time.
      2.Getting the nougat spread between sheets of Ostia is the trickiest part of the process. I use buttered caramel rulers on the outside edges of the bottom sheet, pour and press nougat in place, and then press the top layer on with an offset spatula. If you don't have caramel rulers, try spreading the nougat with an offset spatula, topping with the other sheet, and rolling with a pin to smooth. I advise against trying to cast the slab in any kind of fixed side pan, as the stickiness will make it very difficult to remove.
      3.Score the top layer of Ostia before cutting through. Once scored, a straight down cut with a Chef's knife works well. Cut into six 8 1/2” long bars and wrap in parchment or waxed paper to store, then cut into smaller rectangles to serve.
      4.There are many possible alternate flavorings. 1-10 Lemon oil or 1 t. (5 ml) vanilla or almond extract work well and are traditional flavors. Candied orange peel and/or orange zest can also be added.
      5.I use half pistachio and half almonds as the nuts. Hazelnuts (filberts) are also traditional. Any common nut should work.
      6.Ostia is available from confectionery suppliers. I get 8-1/2” x 11” sheets from www.sugarcraft.com under the name 'wafer paper'.
      This recipe is copyright 2009 by Patrick J. Santucci. Contact the author on eGullet under the username psantucc.
    • By Paul Bacino
      1 C Northern Beans soaked over-night in
      4-6C Water or Chxn Stock
      1/2 t Cayenne Pepper
      1//2 t Granulated garlic
      1 twig Dried oregano-- dried from last yr
      2 Bay
      pinch of salt ( yes ) and few pepper corns
      in the Morning; All into the Slow Cooker for 5 hrs. ( Crock Pot )
      I removed half the liquor and added chicken stock here back in . to this I added diced cooked Italian sausage about 1 whole .. simmer in a pot.. I transferred to... then add 1/2 head of shopped chicory ( curly endive ) finish cooking 15 mins
      cheers
      Most measurements again are from feel
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