Easter Treats: La Gubana and an Asparagus Tart

When I was a university student I had a good friend who was from Milan. His mother was a fabulous cook and I can still remember how impressed I was when she served me this bread, a soft sweet dough wrapped around a filling of nuts, spices, raisins, and cocoa. I never knew what it was called until I found a recipe for it in Carol Field's The Italian Baker. La Gubana is a specialty of Friuli-Venezia Giulia and it's been around for a long time - it was listed on a menu in honor of Pope Gregorio XII in 1409.

One of the features of this bread is its slight bitterness from the addition of nuts and an assortment of liqueurs, but since I was making it for some friends with children I used unsweetened apple juice mixed with a small amount of rum to replace most of the alcohol (I heated the rum with the raisins to burn off the alcohol). I also added a big handful of chocolate chips for added sweetness to appeal to a kid's palate.

The bread was much easier to make than I expected. The only tricky part was mounding the filling onto the dough without it spilling out the sides - there was easily as much filling as dough.

It was sealed at the edges and rolled into a snail shape. The Gubana rose for about two hours and was baked for about an hour.

I loved the beautiful swirls of chocolate and nuts. The bread itself was very similar to a panettone, fragrant with vanilla and orange with a dense crumb that contributed to its keeping qualities. The chocolate counterbalanced the slight bitterness of the hazelnuts and walnuts without making the bread too sweet.

The next day we were invited to a pot luck at a friend's place. I'd been dying to try out a potato crusted tart that I found in a recent issue of King Arthur Flour's baking newsletter, The Baking Sheet. Since the friend who was hosting the dinner has coeliac disease I though it would be the perfect opportunity to test the recipe. The newsletter called for leeks and mushrooms in the filling but I couldn't resist the asparagus that I found in the market. The crust was very simple, just shredded potato, onion, some cornstarch to bind it, and a little salt and pepper. The ingredients were combined, pressed into the tart pan, and baked. I made a custard of whole milk and eggs and poured it over some sauteed asparagus, leeks, and grated cheese in the shell. The tart was decorated with the tips, sprinkled with more cheese and baked for about 40 minutes. I was happy with the results although the potato crust was a bit soggy on the bottom. It would make a wonderful spring brunch dish.

Nettlefest 2009!

Last Sunday at the community hall a group of about 90 islanders gathered for our second annual nettle festival. It was a two-fold celebration: our first Nettlefest was a huge success and we managed to top it this year, with more participants, some fabulous entertainment, and even better food. We were also raising a glass to the first anniversary of the island's wildly successful Food Program. I don't think that anyone could have predicted only a year ago that we would have been able to bring so many people together to learn about growing, raising, cooking, and preserving food. Upcoming events include cheese-making and chicken-raising workshops and an organizational meeting for a land and crop share co-op.

At noon the pickers headed out to gather the nettles. They were piled on tables where the leaves were separated from the stems. We spent the rest of the afternoon preparing our feast.

Just before dinner one of the Food Program coordinators led us in an illuminating exercise. She had placed some signs on the walls around the hall that said things like, "Nothing at All", "Two Days", "Two Weeks", "One Month", "Six Months", and "One year". She asked all of us to think about how long we could last if all supplies to the island were cut off overnight (we were allowed to put our foraging, hunting and fishing skills into the equation). She then asked us to stand under the sign that most closely corresponded to the length of our food supply. I was surprised to see about 15 people clustered around the "One Year" sign (and not a Mormon or a survivalist among them!) but I was also shocked to see that some people had no extra provisions at all or just enough for a couple of days. I was somewhere in the middle with about three months worth of food.

The meal (a $10 donation) was restaurant quality, not that surprising considering that there were three chefs and one former bakery owner among the volunteers. The appetizer was nettle rolls with smoked salmon butter. The smoked salmon came from January's fish smoking workshop.

The vegetarian main course was nettle ravioli gnudi, or naked ravioli made with ricotta, nettles, eggs, and Parmesan cheese. The gnudi were poached in water until they rose to the surface.

They were topped with a chunky tomato sauce and Parmesan cheese and heated just until the cheese melted.

The second main course was local salmon fillets with nettle and cilantro pesto.

Dessert was apple and blueberry crisp served with a nettle infused yogurt semi-freddo - simply divine!

It was a gorgeous day and it felt as though we were all coming out of a long hibernation. After dinner we sat back with our tea and coffee and listened to funny stories about nettle encounters and some very talented musicians (even some nettle rap). Could there be a better way to celebrate the real start of spring than by sharing fantastic local food with your friends and neighbors?

The only down side of the day? The 20 tablecloths and 90 cloth napkins that needed to be washed!