Tag Archives: food

Mangia! Mangia! – Florentine Sweet for September, Schiacciata con l’Uva

It seems that in Italy those born in the month of September do not dream of a double chocolate cake as a birthday cake. Instead they have a passion for Schiacciata con l’Uva, the traditional Tuscan sweet baked only as the grape harvest begins.

Schiacciata con l’Uva (or to Florentines Schiacciata Coll’Uva) is a lightly sweetened focaccia bread spiked with the early grapes, especially those known as uva fragola or uva fragolino (strawberry grapes), which is also known in Italy as Uva Americana because it is an New World varietal – vitis labrusca – the Eastern Concord grape. The dish, however, can be made with any red wine grape (frequently canaiolo is used).

Schiacciata con l’Uva in the oven (photo by Judy Witts Francini)

Historically, workers in the vineyards of Tuscany cooked up this “poor dish” made of simple ingredients: bread dough, olive oil, sugar, a sprig of rosemary and red grapes. Some say the recipe has Etruscan origins using grapes that grew wild.

Perfect combo of dough to grapes in Schiacciata con l’Uva (photo by Judy Witts Francini)

Schiacciata means squashed or flattened and in Tuscany it usually refers to a salty, oily focaccia bread, but during the harvest, sugar is added to the bread dough. There are usually two layers of dough, with plenty of red grapes in the middle and on top.

There are two camps of Schiacciata con l’Uva lovers: con semi and senza semi. That’s with or without grape seeds. Those who love the crunch and nuttiness of the seeds claim that it is the only proper and traditional way to eat the sweet. The Eutruscans probably didn’t remove the seeds. But the best fornos usually offer both varieties. Tuscan Traveler’s favorite vendor is Focacceria Pugi in Piazza San Marco (senza semi for TT).

Check out the post and recipe (using rosemary-infused olive oil) from Judy Witts Francini on DivinaCucina.com (above are her wonderful photos of a perfectly made Schiacciata con l’Uva).

Schiacciata with figs (photo by Judy Witts Francini)

Judy also took a photo of another version of this dessert – fig schiacciata – that also makes a seasonal appearance in September.

As Judy says, “At my Florence bakery near the market, Ivana Braschi makes a fresh fig schiacciata which is incredible.”

Judy includes the recipe in her cookbook: Secrets From My Tuscan Kitchen, available on Amazon.com.

Other recipes and photos can be found From Emiko Davies and panevinoezucchero.it .

Lisa Brancatisano of ThisTuscanLife.com presents a video demonstrating how to make Schiacciata con l’Uva.

Mangia! Mangia! – Polpettone, Italy’s Meatloaf

I’ve never been a fan of meatloaf. That is until I lived in Italy and tasted the Italian version – polpettone. It was there, also, that I learned that the meatloaf I disliked had its genesis in Rome.

Like most Americans who grew up in the fifties and sixties, meatloaf made an appearance on our dinner table on a regular basis. Meatloaf is a dish of ground meat mixed with other ingredients, formed into a loaf shape, then baked. The loaf shape is usually formed by cooking it in a loaf pan, thus the name. Meatloaf is usually made from ground beef, although lamb, pork, veal, venison, poultry and seafood are also used.

Later copy of the recipes of Apicius, dated 1709

The first known recipe came from Apicius, a collection of Roman recipes, usually thought to have been compiled in the late 4th or early 5th century AD. This was the cookbook erroneously attributed to the culinary writings of Marcus Apicius, noble and erudite Roman gourmet of the time of Tiberius. Apicius is said to have derived his gastronomic learning from Greek manuscripts and to have founded a school devoted to the culinary arts. His own manuscript was in fact lost, and the work, which was printed under his name, was derived from notes supposed to have been written by one of his pupils; these notes were copied, apparently, two hundred years after the death of Marcus Apicius.

Throughout the Roman Empire the recipe traveled until there were German, Scandinavian and Belgian versions, including the Dutch meatball. American meatloaf has its origins in scrapple, a mixture of ground pork and cornmeal served by German-Americans in Pennsylvania since Colonial times. However, meatloaf in the modern American sense of a loaf of ground meat did not appear in cookbooks until the late 19th century.

Recently, Frank Bruni and Jennifer Steinhauer, both contributors to the NY Times, shared their passion for meatloaf, having been exchanging recipes via phone, email, and text message for decades, in a new book, A MEATLOAF IN EVERY OVEN. It is their homage to a distinct tradition, with 50 recipes from Italian polpettone to Middle Eastern kibbe to curried bobotie; from the authors’ own favorites to those of famous chefs and prominent politicians.

The new U.S. president has brought a love of meatloaf to the White House and a few months back forced Governor Chris Christie to partake of his favorite dish.

The name polpettone is derived from polpette, which are Italian meatballs. Polpettine are tiny meatballs and polpettone is a large or giant meat ball (large enough to share).

The Cosimino Polpettone created by Dario Cecchini (photo: dariocecchini.com)

One of my favorite cookbook writers is Pellegrino Artusi, author of the famous Italian cookbook La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di Mangiare Bene (The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well). Writing 100 years ago, Artusi is the father of Italian cuisine. Luckily for me, his seminal book has been translated into English.

Introducing “Mr. Meatloaf” by Artusi

Artusi riffs on “Mr. Meatloaf” who is “shy” and “feel[s] inferior” to other dishes. To Artusi and many Italians, polpettone is a way to use left-over meat and stale bread to create a delicious meal for the family.

Artusi, like Lidia Bastianich, soaked stale bread in milk (see Lidia’s video), which perhaps is one answer to improving the dry meatloaf of my youth. Artusi cooked his giant meatball in a pan on top of the stove creating a crispy crust surrounding a juicy center. He made an eggy cream sauce to pour over the finished meatloaf, an improvement on the catsup of today.

Polpettone di Carne Cruda alla Fiorentina

Artusi also offered a recipe for a stuffed meatloaf alla Piedmontese with hardboiled eggs at the center to give the meatloaf “a more attractive appearance when it is sliced.” Mario Batali’s home-style Italian polpettone ripieno wraps a 50/50 ratio of ground beef to sweet or spicy Italian sausage around vegetables, which keep the meat moist and adds much-needed flavor to the traditional dish. Notice, a loaf pan is not used in Batali’s recipe.

The Cosimino served with Dario’s Mediterranean sauce (photo:dariocecchini.com)

Dario Cecchini, the famed butcher of Panzano serves a polpettone, known as Il Cosimino, (find “Il Cosimino” in the artistic photograph on his home page)  in his restaurants and sells it in his macelleria (butcher shop). Dario’s polpettone is a hand-formed, oven-baked beef meatloaf with a small amount of lean pork, garlic, red onion, thyme, salt and pepper. The name is derived from a dish that was served for the first time at a banquet for Cosimo de’ Medici’s christening in 1519, it brought him great luck for this baby from the more obscure branch of the Medici clan became the first Grand Duke of Tuscany.

Il Cosimino can be sliced or cubed. I like it best with a spicy-sweet Mediterranean sauce made of bell pepper and peperoncino. I can’t wait to be back in Panzano to have Cosimino again.

 

 

Mangia! Mangia! – Pan di Ramerino, Traditional Florentine Rosemary Bread

Pan di Ramerino is a Florentine Easter tradition, large chewy rolls flavored with rosemary and raisins. In the past and still today, they were made for Giovedi’ Santo, Maundy Thursday (the day before Good Friday), marked with the Cross, and sold by street vendors outside the churches (often blessed by the priest) and in bakeries throughout Tuscany. It is the perfect combination of sweet and savory.

Rosemary in Tuscan dialect is Ramerino.

Florentine rosemary bread was born in the Middle Ages. It is a devotional product and each of its flavors is tied to a symbolic significance. It is an emblem of the immortality of the soul and during the Middle Ages it was thought that rosemary kept away evil spirits.

Grapes (raisins), olive oil and grain are metaphors of life and represent Holy Communion. In addition, the bread is cross cut (a hot-crossed bun), which favors leavening, and gives the image of the connection between religion and the bread.

Rosemary, a plant which abundantly grows in Tuscany, results in the designation ramerino (Tuscan dialect for rosmarino). It is also known as panino con lo zibibbo, which refers to the type of grape used in the ancient recipe. A local grape, zibibbo, with seeds was used in the past and now it is more common to use seedless grapes. A more modern version has a shiny, sticky sweet sugar syrup top.

Pan di Ramerino (photo: ricette.giallozafferano.it)

The recipe includes: soft wheat flour, water, yeast, salt, olive oil, raisins and rosemary (the rosemary is roughly ground in a mortar, passed through a sieve, sautéed in oil) and made into the dough. It is divided into pieces which are left to rise under a damp cotton cloth. Before being put in the oven, the rolls are brushed with oil or a egg wash. Baking traditionally takes place in a wood-burning oven. The sugar syrup is brushed on when the cooked buns are still warm.

Production is widespread throughout Tuscany, especially in Florence, where there are more than 100 bakeries. The quantity produced is about 120-140 tons per year; demand and production in recent years are more or less stable. Sales are exclusively local, 80% directly to the public and 20% to local shops.

Recipes can be found here and here.

Video is here, here and here.

Mangia! Mangia! – Cacciucco, Tuscan Fish Stew

Cacciucco is a hearty Italian fish stew known to the western coastal towns of Tuscany and Liguria for over 500 years. It is especially associated with the Tuscan port city of Livorno and the town of Viareggio to the north.

Cacciucco with mussels and prawns (photo turismo.intoscana.it)

The term ‘Cacciucco’ derives from a Turkish word Kϋçϋk (“small” or “bits and pieces” or “odds and ends”), which refers to the size and variety of the fish used to make the dish. Originally, Cacciucco was made with those fish left over after a catch, the pesce povero or “poor fish” because they were more difficult to sell and often taken home at the end of the day by the fisherman for his family.

It is a stew or soup consisting of several different types of fish and shellfish. According to one tradition, there should be five different types of fish in the soup, one for each letter C in Cacciucco. A wide variety of Mediterranean fish and shellfish may be used, such as octopus, squid, and bony fish like scorfano nero (black scorpion fish), pesce prete (Atlantic stargazer), gallinella (tub gurnard), palombo (dog fish), and tracina (weever fish), small clams (littleneck or manila), mussels, shrimp, calamari, mantis prawns crabs, eel, cuttlefish, octopus, bream, mullet, or anything else caught that day. The soup is made with tomato, garlic, chili, red wine and often fresh sage.

Cacciucco with toasted bread (photo: sharingtuscany.com, orenzovinci.ilgiornale.it)

Cacciucco is similar to other types of fish stew, such as the French bouillabaisse, Greek kakavia, Spanish zarzuela, and Portuguese caldeirada. Cioppino, another fish stew, was created by Italian-American fisherman in San Francisco, who used the local Dungeness crab in a variation of the Cacciucco recipe.

There are many legends and myths surrounding its creation although there are two stories most often repeated. The first tells of a fisherman from Livorno who lost his life at sea in a shipwreck. His children were so hungry with nobody to provide for them after his death that they turned to all their neighbors for food. Everyone gave them different types of fish (similar to the story of Acquacotta), with which their mother made a huge soup adding tomatoes, garlic, oil and slices of bread – thus creating the first cacciucco.

Cacciucco with thick stew by Freddy Ortega (photo: F. Ortega)

The second, is that a lighthouse keeper created the soup. The Florentine Republic had prohibited the use of the olive oil that he always used to fry his fish and so  instead of his favorite pesci fritti, he made a fish soup instead.

Pellegrino Artusi, in his classic 1891 cookbook cookbook La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiar bene (The Science of Cooking and the Art of Fine Dining), created the following recipe:

For 700 grams (1 1⁄2 lb) of fish, finely chop an onion and sauté it with oil, parsley, and two whole cloves of garlic. The moment the onion starts to brown, add 300 grams (10 1⁄2 ounces) of chopped from tomatoes or tomato paste, and season with salt and pepper.

More shellfish than soup (photo: quilivorno.it)

When the tomatoes are cooked, pour in one finger of strong vinegar or two fingers of weak vinegar, diluted in a large glass of water. Let boil for a few more minutes, then discard the garlic and strain the rest of the ingredients, pressing hard against the mesh. Put the strained sauce back on the fire along with whatever fish you may have on hand, including sole, red mullet, gurnard, dogfish, mantis shrimp, and other types of fish in season, leaving the small fish whole and cutting the big ones into small pieces. Taste for seasoning; but in any case it is not a bad idea to add a little olive oil, since the amount of soffritto was quite small. When the fish is cooked, the cacciucco is usually brought to the table on two separate platters: on one you place the fish, strained from the broth, and on the other you arrange enough finger-thick slices of bread to soak up all the broth. (Find English language version of Artusi’s famed cookbook at Amazon.com.)

Other recipes can be found here, here, and here.

 

Mangia! Mangia! Acquacotta, the Italian Stone Soup

Acquacotta (literally “cooked water”) is the Tuscan version of the classic tale of Stone Soup. It a simple traditional dish – in its most basic form made of water, bread and onions – originating in the Tuscan coastal region known as Maremma (often referred to as Acquacotta della Maremma). It was originally a peasant food, derived from an ancient Etruscan dish, the recipe of people who lived in the Tuscan forest working as carbonari (charcoal burners), as well as butteri (cowboys), fishermen, indentured farmers and shepherds in the Maremma region.

Acquacotta della Maremma (photo by giallozafferano.it)
Acquacotta della Maremma (photo by giallozafferano.it)

One purpose of Acquacotta is to make stale, hardened Tuscan bread edible. People that worked away from home for significant periods of time, such as woodcutters, fishermen and shepherds, would bring bread and other foods (such as lard, pancetta and salt cod) with them to eat over many days. Acquacotta was prepared and used to marinate the stale bread, thus softening it. The home cook, not wanting leftover bread to go to waste, would do the same. (Other peasant soup recipes, like Ribollita and Pappa al Pomodoro, alternatives to Acquacotta, were also thickened (bulked up) with stale Tuscan bread.) Those working in the forest and fields would add edible wild greens. A fisherman might cook a small fish in the broth. At home, a potato, garlic and a carrot would be added.

As noted, historically, Acquacotta’s primary ingredients were water, stale bread, onion, tomato and olive oil, along with various vegetables and leftover foods that may have been available. In the early 1800s, some preparations used agresto, a juice derived from half-ripened grapes, in place of the tomato, which was not a common food in Italy prior to the latter decades of the nineteenth century.

locandina_lazuppa

In searching for the history of the folk tales behind Acquacotta, I found a short movie “La Zuppa di Pietra“ (Stone Soup) by Christian Carmosino, which won the First Prize at the 2008 Academia Barilla Short Films Festival. The subtitled version can be found on YouTube.

(The town where the film was made is the jewel of Civita di Bagnoregio in northern Lazio near the Maremma. The population is about 12 in the winter and over 100 in the summer. It is a favorite of visiting Americans.)

Civita di Bagnoregio
Civita di Bagnoregio

In the short film, director Carmosino tells a story of a small village in rural Italy, where a traveling stranger convinces a town of suspicious residents to give him a pot of water in which he will make a delicious soup with his “magic” stone. The stranger then “tricks” various villagers to add something to the soup. It becomes a metaphor for the pleasure of a communal effort of creating a rich meal by sharing ingredients, to be eaten together around a shared table.

I found two Italian tales of Acquacotta (as opposed to Stone Soup):

One tells of a poor young girl, whose mother died when she was young. She has five elder brothers and a father. Due to her youth and their poverty, she was not able to make proper meals for her family. She decided to help her family by working for an old woman who lived in the neighborhood. She received just three eggs a day, a small portion of cheese and some bread, which were not enough to feed those hungry brothers. So instead of cooking the meager ingredients separately, the young girl decided to make a soup containing the eggs, cheese and bread, adding greens from the forest and the meadow. The simple nutritious soup became the family staple.

The other goes like this: There once was a boy called Ultimo (literally “Last One”), who was very poor and had many brothers. One summer evening, tired and hungry, he sat next to a fire in the farmyard where he worked as a laborer, thinking about what he could eat. In his pocket there was an onion. To a pot, sitting beside the fire, he added a little water, cut up the onion and cooked it. He added more water. Then he went to the edge of the meadow and discovered some wild chicory to add to the pot. He went in the hen house and took a bit of the dry stale bread left for the chickens to eat. He added the bread to the pot. His brothers called him from afar: “Ultimo! Ultimo, what are you doing?” “Nothing of importance,” he replied. “I’m just cooking water. I’m making Acquacotta.” Next time, he thought, I’ll add an egg. The farmer’s wife will never miss it. (Told, in part, by Erica of Cuoche In Vacanza (Cooks On Holiday).)

Acquacotta without poached eggs (photo by vacanzeintuscia.blogspot.com)
Acquacotta without poached eggs (photo by vacanzeintuscia.blogspot.com)

Contrary to its origins as a peasant dish, made simply of water and a few flavors, Acquacotta is now usually a very hardy soup. Contemporary preparations may use stale, fresh, or toasted bread, and can include additional ingredients such as vegetable broth, eggs, cheeses such as Parmigiano-Reggiano and Pecorino Toscano, celery, garlic, basil, beans such as cannellini beans, cabbage, kale, lemon juice, salt, pepper, potatoes and others.

Some versions may use edible mushrooms such as porcini, and leaf vegetables (arugula, kale, and broccoli leaves) and wild greens such as calamint, wild chicory, stinging nettles, dandelions, sow thistle, wild beet, wild fennel, and wild asparagus. As the greens boil down, they contribute to the broth’s flavor.

Acquacotta is distinguishable from other Tuscan soups due to its use of a poached egg (cracked right onto the simmering soup itself to poach) and stale bread added at the end of (and not during) its preparation.

One of my favorite food bloggers (and Italian cookbook author) Emiko Davies has posted a piece on Acquacotta with gorgeous photographs and a delicious modern recipe.

Giulia Scarpaleggia, food writer, photographer and Tuscan cooking instructor, provides another recipe for Acquacotta with the Italian version of the tale of Zuppa di Pietra, accompanied by beautiful photographs.

Tuscan Traveler’s Picks – Nonfiction Books to Read Before You Go To Italy in 2017, Part Two

Instead of relying on internet sites and travel guides to inform your upcoming visit to Italy, get a copy of these histories, essays, cultural musings, and cookbooks to heighten the anticipation for your travels. Guide books are great planning tools, but an in-depth discussion of history and culture and cuisine will result in a richer Italian adventure. These books are set in Rome, Tuscany, Venice, Florence and Sicily. (Please add to the list by commenting on this post and check out last year’s picks.)

legal-holiday-books-624x445Tasting Rome: Fresh Flavors and Forgotten Recipes from an Ancient City by Katie Parla and Kristina Gill

Tasting Rome is a love letter from two Americans to their adopted city, showcasing modern dishes influenced by tradition, as well as the rich culture of their surroundings.

The new book provides a complete picture of a place that many love, but few know completely. In sharing Rome’s celebrated dishes, street food innovations, and forgotten recipes, journalist Katie Parla and photographer Kristina Gill capture its unique character and reveal its truly evolved food culture—a culmination of 2000 years of history.

 

tastingromecollage

Their recipes explore the foundations of Roman cuisine and demonstrate how it has transitioned to the variations found today. There are the expected classics (cacio e pepe, pollo alla romana, fiori di zucca); the fascinating, but largely undocumented, Sephardic Jewish cuisine (hraimi con couscous, brodo di pesce, pizzarelle); the authentic and tasty offal (guanciale, simmenthal di coda, insalata di nervetti); and so much more.

Studded with narrative features that capture the city’s history and gorgeous photography that highlights both the food and its hidden city, you’ll feel immediately inspired to start tasting Rome either in the actual city or at home.

A Literary Tour of Italy by Tim Parks

41jtihlzrnl-_sx319_bo1204203200_Tim Parks with his finely observed writings on all aspects of Italian life and customs has now compiled a selection of his best essays on the literature of his adopted country.

From Boccaccio and Machiavelli through to Moravia and Tabucchi, from the Stil Novo to Divisionism, across centuries of history and intellectual movements, these essays give English readers, who love Italy and its culture, a primer on the best writing throughout Italian history.

Kirkus says: “Italian identity, [Parks] concludes, comes from a sense of belonging to groups such as family, friends, region, church, and political party. He often takes issue, therefore, with biographers who fail “to draw on the disciplines of psychology and anthropology” to examine the personal and historical contexts of their subject’s life.”

The author’s deep familiarity with Italian culture informs these intelligent, perceptive essays.

In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri

51wnsrzeh6l-_sx315_bo1204203200_Over the course of four novels and story collections, Jhumpa Lahiri has written about themes of identity, estrangement and belonging. She has received numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize; the PEN/Hemingway Award; the Premio Gregor von Rezzori; the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature; and the 2014 National Humanities Medal.

All the while, the Indian-American author has faced these issues herself. Torn between two worlds, she has felt like an outsider in both. The author has spent a lifetime caught in the clash between her parents’ Old World customs and the American culture that has so rewarded her achievements.

She fell in love with Italy and dreamed of immersing herself in its language and culture. It was an infatuation that became an obsession. In the end, Italy proved to be a place to neutralize tensions that had haunted her for decades. Learning it is an act of rebirth, of rebuilding a fractured self and changing course. In Other Words appeals on many levels—as a passion project, cultural document and psychological study. True to the nature of her quest, Lahiri wrote this book in Italian, rough edges and all; it conveys an intimate view of the complicated bonds that exist between language and identity.

Tuscany: A History by Alister Moffat

51sqgmsrvmlIf you travel to the region, you’ll want to take with you Moffat’s Tuscany: A History; and if you read the book first, you’ll want to travel to the region.

Ever since the days of the Grand Tour, Tuscany has cast its spell over world travelers. What is it that makes this exquisite part of Italy so seductive? To answer this question Alistair Moffat embarks on a journey into Tuscany’s past. From the flowering of the Etruscan civilization in the 7th century BC through the rise of the powerful medieval communes of Arezzo, Luca, Pisa and Florence, and the role the area played as the birthplace of the Renaissance, he underlines both the area’s regional uniqueness as well as the vital role it has played in the history of the whole of Italy.

Insightful, readable and imbued with the author’s own enthusiasm for Tuscany, this book includes a wealth of information not found in tourist guides.

City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas by Roger Crowley

city-of-fortuneThe rise and fall of Venice’s empire is an irresistible story and Roger Crowley, with his rousing descriptive gifts and scholarly attention to detail, is its perfect chronicler.

The New York Times bestselling author charts Venice’s astounding five-hundred-year voyage to the pinnacle of power in an epic story that stands unrivaled for drama, intrigue, and sheer opulent majesty. City of Fortune traces the full arc of the Venetian imperial saga, from the ill-fated Fourth Crusade, which culminates in the sacking of Constantinople in 1204, to the Ottoman-Venetian War of 1499–1503, which sees the Ottoman Turks supplant the Venetians as the preeminent naval power in the Mediterranean.

In between are three centuries of Venetian maritime dominance, during which a tiny city of “lagoon dwellers” grow into the richest place on earth. Drawing on firsthand accounts of pitched sea battles, skillful negotiations, and diplomatic maneuvers, Crowley paints a vivid picture of this avaricious, enterprising people and the bountiful lands that came under their dominion. From the opening of the spice routes to the clash between Christianity and Islam, Venice played a leading role in the defining conflicts of its time—the reverberations of which are still being felt today.

Mozza at Home: More than 150 Crowd-Pleasing Recipes for Relaxed, Family-Style Entertaining by Nancy Silverton

As an award-winning chef and the owner of six busy restaurants across two continents, Nancy Silverton was so consumed by her life in the professional kitchen that for years she almost never cooked at home. With her intense focus on the business of cooking, Nancy had forgotten what made her love to cook in the first place: fabulous ingredients at the height of their season, simple food served family style, and friends and loved ones gathered around the dinner table. Then, on a restorative trip to Italy—with its ripe vegetables, magnificent landscapes, and long summer days—Nancy began to cook for friends and family again, and rediscovered the great pleasures and tastes of cooking and eating at home.

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Now, in Mozza at Home, Nancy shares her renewed passion and provides nineteen menus packed with easy-to-follow recipes that can be prepared in advance and are perfect for entertaining. Organized by meal, each menu provides a main dish along with a complementary selection of appetizers and side dishes.

Whether it’s Marinated Olives and Fresh Pecorino and other appetizers that can be put out while you’re assembling the rest of the meal; simple sides, such as Roasted Carrots and Chickpeas with Cumin Vinaigrette, that are just as delicious served at room temperature as they are warm; or savory main dishes such as the Flattened Chicken Thighs with Charred Lemon Salsa Verde—there is something here for every occasion.

And don’t forget dessert—there’s an entire chapter dedicated to end-of-meal treats such as Devil’s Food Rings with Spiced White Mountain Frosting and Dario’s Olive Oil Cake with Rosemary and Pine Nuts that can be prepared hours before serving so that the host gets to relax during the event, too.

Enjoy this diverse group of books through the winter months and then in the spring head to Italy because everyone should be Italian once in their lives.

Tuscan Traveler’s Tales – Real Licorice from Calabria

For Americans, licorice most likely means chewy candies called Red Vines or Twizzlers, which have no actual licorice in the recipe (corn syrup, wheat flour, citric acid, artificial flavor, red 40). (Red Vines also comes in Black Twists (molasses, wheat flour, corn syrup, caramel color, licorice extract, salt, artificial flavor).) Real licorice (liquorice to the Brits) comes from the root of a herbaceous perennial legume native to southern Europe, including Italy and parts of Asia, such as India.

Illustration of Glycyrrhiza Glabra
Illustration of Glycyrrhiza Glabra

In Italy, licorice is enjoyed as a hard or soft candy, usually button-shaped or tiny squares, with no added sugar because the licorice root has its own sweetness. In fact, the woody root itself was used (and for some, still is) as chew stick or toothbrush, prized for its anti-bacterial and breath-freshening qualities.

Licorice sticks for chewing (photo authoritynutrition.com)
Licorice sticks for chewing (photo authoritynutrition.com)

The history of licorice in Calabria begins in the 11th century. Old records testify that in the 16th century the Amarelli family and others were interested in the roots of a particular plant that grew wild on their extensive Calabrian estates (then in the Kingdom of Naples). Its name was liquirizia, scientifically called glycyrrhiza glabra, which means “sweet root”.

Map of Amarelli Museum and Factory in Rosano (photo amerelli.com)
Map of Amarelli Museum and Factory in Rosano (photo amerelli.com)

Today, visitors taking a road trip in Calabria are in for a once-in-a-lifetime experience because the Amarelli family, licorice producers since 1731, has opened the Giorgio Amarelli Museo della Liquirizia, in Rossano near Sibari in the region of Calabria. The Licorice Museum  was awarded the Premio Gugghenheim Impresa & Cultura (Guggenheim Culture and Business Prize) in 2001 and in 2004 Poste Italiane dedicated a postage stamp to it, part of the series Il Patrimonio Artistico e Culturale Italiano.

Licorice Museum depicted on Italian postage stamp
Licorice Museum depicted on Italian postage stamp

The Museum is located in the late 15th century historic residence, which was both home and production plant of the Amarelli family. The family’s history is presented through a series of engravings, documents, books and vintage photographs. The center gallery exhibits the history of licorice and the traditional system of its production, from the root bales, to the manual tools, to the bronze and porcelain molds and the first experimental machines. There are also documents about administrative procedures from the 18th and 19th centuries: manufacturing trade journals, accounting books, payments records and correspondence between manufacturers and government authorities. An old shipping office is reconstructed.

Amarelli Licorice Tablets (photo amarelli.com)
Amarelli Licorice Tablets (photo amarelli.com)

Visitors can also tour the production of Amerielli licorice, which still takes place in the historic eighteenth-century Concio, the original production site, across the road from the museum. In 1731 Amarelli’s established the concio, one of the first pre-industrial factories in the area to extract the juice of the licorice plant roots. The shiny, black licorice produced was not sweetened beyond the sugars naturally found in the root.

Licorice root ready to be pressed (photo pleinair.it)
Licorice root ready to be pressed (photo pleinair.it)

Historically, the roots were gathered and stored outside the factory (as they are today). The process began when the roots were milled by a big grindstone, then boiled (no grindstone today, but still boiled). The juice obtained was put through a sieve, cooked in great pots until the mass was reduced and thickened. While still warm and soft, it was hand-worked into licorice sticks and tiny buttons or squares. Find videos of the process here and here.

Ancient Licorice Factory (photo uisitalia.org)
Ancient Licorice Factory (photo uisitalia.org)

In 1907, steam boilers were installed. In 1919 the design of the first metal pocket-sized carrying cases for licorice drops was complete. These served to preserve the quality and in the following years became important for marketing with art-decò images still popular today.

Cooking the liquid from licorice roots (photo uisitalia.org)
Cooking the liquid from licorice roots (photo uisitalia.org)

In the present day, the process of root selection, juice extraction, boiling and reduction in modern facilities, in compliance with all the current regulations, computerized and automatically controlled, but the final product is controlled by the mastro liquiriziaio.

Amarelli Museum in Rosano
Amarelli Museum in Rossano

After three centuries the Amarelli Company, a member of the exclusive Les Hénokiens (an association of companies who have been continuously operating and remain family-owned for 200 years or more, and whose descendants still operate at management level), still produces a very high quality licorice, which can be eaten pure or soft or sugar-coated or tasted as delicious liqueur in candies, brandy and spirits. Amarelli licorice is even used in a Florentine toothpaste.

So give up the sugary fake chews and buy the real Italian licorice. As one reviewer said, “It’s not your father’s licorice, but it IS your grandfather’s licorice. (His grandmother is Calabrian.)

Mangia! Mangia! – Tuscan Holiday Treats for Spring

Carnival and Easter are the best times for desserts in Italy, especially in Tuscany. I have a sweet tooth, but have never been a big fan of Italian dolce. (I prefer French pastries and cakes.) But that all changes every spring. In previous posts I’ve extolled the virtues of giant Italian chocolate eggs and Colomba di Pasqua (the Easter Dove). Now it’s time to wrap up the quartet of Easter delights that are found in every pastry shop and café for the next two months – schiacciata alla fiorentina and cenci.

Easter Eggs

Schiacciata alla Fiorentina

Schiacciata alla fiorentina is a large, rectangular, flat, powdered sugar-dusted, citrus sponge cake. The scent of orange peel and vanilla are the predominant notes and it is traditionally served plain, but sometimes filled with slightly sweetened, freshly whipped Chantilly (my favorite) or pastry cream. You know you have the right sweet when you see the stenciled Florentine giglio, the symbolic lily of Florence, dusted over the top in powdered sugar or contrasting cocoa powder.

schiacciata-alla-fiorentina-You can sit down for a small square portion or take home a whole cake. During Carnival and Easter week, you may have to reserve your whole schiacciata alla fiorentina a day ahead of time at the best pasticceria, selecting a filling, or not, and requesting a white or chocolate giglio.

The name confused me in the beginning. In Florence, schiacciata means ‘squashed’ or ‘flattened’ and usually refers to a savory salt and olive oil drenched flat bread (similar to focaccia). There is also schiacciata all’uva in the fall, which is also a traditional bread dough, but layered with grapes from the new harvest. The only thing they all have in common is that they are flat, which perhaps makes sense.

Pellegrino Artusi (born in Forlimpopoli, near Forlì, August 4, 1820 – died in Florence, March 30, 1911), the father of Tuscan cooking talks of stiacciata delle Murate, a cake fed only to condemned prisoners of the Murate Prison in Florence “in the 1700s” before they were sent to be executed, essentially their “last bite of the sweet life.”

SCHIACCIATA-alla-fiorentina-2--525x564Other food historians dispute this since the Murate was a convent until 1808 and Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo abolished capital punishment in Tuscany in 1786. Perhaps the Murate nuns devised the recipe and were baking the cakes to celebrate Fat Tuesday each spring.

Schiacciata alla fiorentina traditionally included lard in the recipe, but today olive oil or butter or Crisco replaces this. Some recipes you might try are here, here and here.

Today’s schiacciata alla fiorentina is a delicately scented, light cake that’s not too sweet. Artusi’s rule that it be no thicker than the width of two fingers is not always followed. The characteristic flavor, marked by orange juice and zest, and soft, spongy texture, make it a favorite for a mid-morning or afternoon snack and I know people who have it for breakfast up until Lent and then again on Easter Sunday. It pairs well with coffee, tea and a good vin santo.

For the best places to find schiacciata alla fiorentina in Florence check out last year’s competition winners and this slightly different list. My favorites are Bar Pasticceria Giorgio in the Soffiano neighborhood and I Dolci di Patrizio Cosi in Piazza Gaetano Salvemini .

Cenci

The last of my favorite Tuscan Easter treats is cenci. The literal meaning of the word is “rags” and these addictive fried flat strips of dough look like rags. You are supposed to stop eating them when Lent starts, but the bakers of Florence know that is impossible to do. And, anyway, you will have them again at Easter.

CenciThe recipe supposedly comes from ancient Rome. Other parts of Italy indulge in the treat during Carnival and so there are many names: bugie (lies) (Piemont, Liguria), chiacchiere (talk) (Lombardy), crostolo, grostolo or galano (Venice), frappa (Emilia), sfrappole and sfrapla (Bologna), crespelle or sprelle (Umbria, Lazio), and meraviglie (wonderful) (Sardenia). Artusi again weighed in saying they are shaped like rags so they should be called cenci.

The dough for cenci is usually not sweet, but flavored with anise or orange liquor or vin santo or grappa. The flattened dough is cut in a variety of shapes (in Florence it’s short raggedy rectangles), fried in hot oil and dusted with powdered sugar.

Try to make your own by using the recipes here, here and here.

I love the cenci from the bakery, Pugi, in Piazza San Marco, but others have their own favorite places.

From the beginning of Carnival and for about a week after Easter you will be able to indulge in chocolate eggs, Colomba di Pasqua, schiacciata alla fiorentina, and cenci. After that you will have to wait another year — as it should be.

Mangia! Mangia! – Zabaione, the Italian Dolce, Rarely Found in Italy

In the mid-1980s, I was sitting at the counter of the newly-opened Jackson Filmore Trattoria in San Francisco. I had finished a dinner that included gnocchi “come nuvole” (like clouds) as the Jack, the chef/owner, liked to say, when the subject of a dolce came up. “Have the zabaione,” Jack said. “Trust me.”

My seat at the counter was only a few yards from the kitchen stove. I watched as the pastry chef whipped up egg yokes in a deep round copper bowl, adding only Masala wine and sugar, and heating the mixture slowly as he whisked. Copper conducted the heat from the boiling water bath evenly, which allowed him to control the cooking process.

Zabaione (photo jacksonfilmoresf.com)
Zabaione (photo jacksonfilmoresf.com)

The volume of heavenly, luxurious yellow foam expanded as I watched. Served over strawberries, the warm zabaione flowing over the rim of a stemmed glass … no wonder I still remember this fabulous dessert thirty years later.

In 1998, I moved to Florence and stayed for over fifteen years. I thought my life would be filled with zabaione. Apparently no restaurant in Italy serves it and no home cook makes it anymore. A Florentine answered my wishful griping by saying that it was a dish made by mothers for their children and is too much trouble these days. I found zabaione gelato at Gelateria Vivoli in the late 90s and many artisanal gelaterias in Italy offer zabaione-flavored ice cream today.

Zabaione, an almost extinct classic sweet (kept alive only in America and still served at Jackson Filmore), is the perfect light, not overly sweet, ending to a dinner. The traditional recipe calls for only three ingredients—eggs, sugar and Marsala wine—and can be whipped up in just a few minutes. It’s useful to have a strong arm and a copper bowl.

Zabaione, also know as Zabaglione in the U.S. (photo fioriogelati.it)
Zabaione, also know as Zabaglione in the U.S. (photo fioriogelati.it)

One of the custard-like sauces that use egg yolks to thicken a liquid—crema pasticciera, hollandaise sauce and mayonnaise, come to mind—making zabaione is simpler in concept than in practice. Zabaione, like the others, is an emulsion, and the proportion of fat to liquid plays an important role. It requires patience when adding the Marsala to the egg yolks to prevent separation and care not to overheat and curdle the mixture.

The perfect copper pot for making zabaione (photo kitchenamore.it)
The perfect copper pot for making zabaione (photo kitchenamore.it)

Marsala is the most common wine used to make zabaione. But Gina DePalma, former pastry chef at Babbo Ristorante in NYC, makes her zabaione with Vin Santo, “because it is a wine with both sweetness and acidity.” She sometimes combine the Vin Santo with rum or grappa. In the Italian region of  Piedmonte, where zabaione originated, it is often made with bubbly Moscato D’Asti, a sweet local wine made with muscat grapes, or another Piedmontese wine, Brachetto D’Acqui.

marsala_vino_superiore_NI’m no cook, only an enthusiastic “good fork” (as they say in Italy), so I won’t give you the recipe or full instructions here. But I recommend a slow reading of home-cook Frank’s post on Memorie di Angelina and professional pastry chef Gina DePalma’s write-up on Serious Eats. Both describe how to make the traditional zabaione that has been made for centuries in Italy. Mika at The 350 Degree Oven adds whipping cream. This allows for either a warm zabaione or the cold thick zabaione, popular in the United States.

I favor the warm eggy zabaione, made without heavy cream, served immediately after it’s made, allowing the aroma of Marsala to waft about me as I savor its sweetness with every bite. Hopefully, while sitting at the counter in Jackson Filmore Trattoria.

Mangia! Mangia! – Zucchini Flowers Italian Style

My father just posted a couple of beautiful photos of the zucchini flowers from his veggie garden and asked if they were really good to eat. Simple answer: Yes, the flowers are scrumptious! However, Italians have two pieces of advice for my father: 1) pick the male flowers now and cook them up immediately, and 2) don’t let the zucchini squash grow beyond five inches long before harvesting it.

Gorgeous zucchini blossoms (photo gourmasian.com)
Gorgeous zucchini blossoms (photo gourmasian.com)

Americans are notorious for growing gigantic zucchini and then searching for ways of disposing of the tasteless watery squash. Garrison Keillor reportedly claimed July is the only time of year when the citizens of Lake Wobegon lock their cars in the church parking lot, so their friends won’t put a squash or two on the front seat.

Too big already (photo gardeningknowhow.com)
Too big already (photo gardeningknowhow.com)

Italians frequently buy their zucchini with the flower attached. The squash is firm, flavorful and can be eaten either raw or cooked in a dozen different ways.

Pick it now! (photo http://bonnieplants.com)
Pick it now! (photo bonnieplants.com)

But, back to the flowers. The gorgeous golden blooms should be plucked from the garden according to their sex. Judy Witts at Divina Cucina explains this well. The male flowers will never produce a squash, so snap them off and eat them now. Judy also gives us a recipe for fried flowers, the way most people love to eat the blossoms.

Male and female zucchini flowers (photo foodcity.com)
Male and female zucchini flowers (photo foodcity.com)

In Rome, you will find stuffed zucchini flowers, full of ricotta and a sliver of anchovy, fried up in golden olive oil. If you want them stuffed, but not fried, cooking the ricotta filled flowers in a fresh tomato sauce is delicious, says Jamie Oliver.

Delicious fried zucchini flowers (photo lifesambrosia.com)
Delicious fried zucchini flowers (photo lifesambrosia.com)

Mario Batali offers a frittata decorated with blossoms, but you can also make an eggy frittata with both chopped baby zucchini, overlaid with golden flowers.

There is a wine bar in Florence that offers a focaccia with a light cheese, decorated with splayed zucchini blossoms, kind of a squash blossom pizza.

Zucchini blossom frittata (photo by seaweedandsassafras.com)
Zucchini blossom frittata (photo by seaweedandsassafras.com)

So my father should either cook up those male flowers now and the female blossoms when the baby zucchini is just long enough, or he should make a sunny bouquet to decorate the center of the dinner table. Zucchini flowers should not just hide away in the garden.