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It’s that time of year when a rash of stories appears to suggest, despite hard science to the contrary, that certain foods — oysters, chocolate or what have you — fire up the libido. A recipe, on the other hand, can have a different kind of romantic power. It might stir up memories or evoke our roots, allowing us to mingle, in a metaphorical way, with our ancestors. For some people, certain foods, whether pasta or potatoes, are imbued with symbolic meaning. The Umbrians, for example, link love and meatballs. Their region, coincidentally, is the birthplace of St. Valentine, the patron saint of lovers, affianced couples and happy marriages (not to mention beekeepers, plagues, epilepsy and fainting episodes).
The lore and lure of the meatball
According to the late Umbrian cookbook writer Guglielma Corsi in her classic “Un Secolo di Cucina Umbra” (“A Century of Umbrian Cooking”), it was once a custom among country people for a prospective mother-in-law to invite her son’s bride-to-be for a home-cooked meal the day before their wedding and present her with a platter of meatballs. The future mother-in-law would offer her one, impaled on a fork, saying, “Daughter-in-law, may you be the joy of my home. Will you bring discord or union?” The bride was meant to answer, of course, “Union,” after which the mother-in-law would respond, “Then eat your polpettina.” A promise of domestic harmony, sealed with a meatball. It’s perhaps not a surprising custom considering Umbria’s Etruscan ancestors, those mysterious first settlers of Italy who, historians tell us, believed that every food harbored a spirit.
In the years since I first crisscrossed Umbria to study its traditions and foods, I, too, have come to believe that a good meatball is a talisman for domestic happiness. Thinking like an Etruscan, I can equate its plumpness as a symbol of abundance, its spherical form with wholeness, good health and the infinite potential of love. Who, in any case (vegetarians aside), doesn’t love a good meatball?
Recipe variations around the world
As with everything else Italian, there is controversy about what constitutes a meatball’s proper structure. For the tenderest meatballs, some say to add water to the ground meat mixture; others add ricotta. Still others swear by blending in sausage meat or pancetta — fat makes for both flavor and moistness. Signora Corsi’s polpettine, a complex blend of three different fresh-ground meats as well as prosciutto, two kinds of cheese, egg, garlic, lemon zest, bread and marjoram, are probably as close to perfection as a meatball can come. But the Bolognese, who consider their cuisine unparalleled, like theirs “straight up,” with no fillers added to the meat, egg, and herb mixture. The succulence of their polpette is because of the addition of a healthy dose of minced mortadella. The Neapolitans sometimes add sultanas and pine nuts to theirs, a Baroque touch befitting their city. The Sardinians may use rice instead of bread, especially for meatballs that will be served at wedding feasts.
The meatball universe extends well beyond Italy. The Greeks spice them with cumin and oregano. A Colombian chef I know grinds together lamb and chorizo, then coats the meatballs with romesco sauce after cooking. A Spanish friend who runs a superb little restaurant near my house adds ground anise seeds to a mixture of beef, pork and veal, which he roasts in his wood-fired clay oven before serving the meatballs with a dollop of burrata in a puddle of tomato sauce. Persian recipes may blend yellow split peas with ground meat, pine nuts or dried fruits. Turkish mixtures are perfumed with cinnamon or saffron. And so on around the world.
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I love them all, but the most tender is the result of a recipe I came up with one summer when the eggplants in my garden dangled from their vines ready for the picking, and I had just brought home a couple of pounds of fresh-ground lamb from the market. I roasted the eggplants until they were entirely collapsed and smoky, scooped out their flesh and plied the pulp with the meat mixture gingerly (overworking it results in a rubbery texture). I added scarce other ingredients besides garlic, rosemary and plenty of parsley — as anyone who is as fond of lamb as I am knows, the meat alone packs a big flavor punch. The eggplant sweetens and foils its gaminess.
No matter which kind of meatballs you make, there are many ways to serve them. Sometimes I offer them as an appetizer, threaded onto rosemary skewers. I might whip together hummus, Greek yogurt and cumin for a dip. Probably everyone’s favorite is meatballs al pomodoro. The color red is a universal symbol of love, passion and happiness, so that’s how I suggest you serve them on Valentine’s Day, whether you are feeding kin, friends, or lovers.
Lamb and Eggplant Meatballs in Simple Tomato Sauce
Prep time: 40 minutes
Cook time: About 40 minutes
Total time: About 1 hour 20 minutes
Yield: 20 meatballs
1 medium eggplant
1 cup day-old sturdy bread such as sourdough or country loaf, crusts removed and cut into 1/4-inch cubes (2 ounces trimmed weight)
Scant 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black or white pepper
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 pound ground lamb leg or shoulder
3 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
2 tablespoons fresh minced rosemary or 2 teaspoons dried crushed rosemary
Extra virgin or pure olive oil for frying
2 cups homemade meatless tomato sauce of your choice
1. Preheat an oven to 400 F.
2. Grease a baking sheet lightly with olive oil. Cut the eggplant in half lengthwise and place each half face down on it. Roast about 30 minutes, until it is entirely collapsed, soft and lightly charred on the cut side. Meanwhile, place the bread cubes in a shallow soup bowl and cover with water. Soak until moistened, several minutes. Drain and squeeze excess water from the bread.
3. When the eggplant is cool enough to handle, cut off the stem. Chop finely.
4. In an ample mixing bowl, whisk together the egg, sea salt, pepper and garlic. Stir in the prepared bread cubes. Use your hands to break them up until they are well blended with the egg mixture. Add the chopped eggplant, ground lamb, parsley and rosemary. Using your fingers, mix the ingredients together without overworking them. If you have time, chill the mixture before forming the meatballs; this step can help you shape it into perfectly round spheres, but it is not essential.
5. With wet hands, form the mixture into equally sized balls about 1 1/4 inches in diameter, no larger than golf balls.
6. Prepare a platter with two layers of paper towels next to the burner over which you will be cooking. In an ample skillet or frying pan, pour enough olive oil to cover the bottom of the pan and warm it over medium heat. Fry the meatballs in batches to avoid overcrowding; there should be plenty of room around each for proper searing. When they have developed a light crust and look golden brown, about 10 minutes, transfer them to the paper towels to drain. If necessary, drain off smoky oil and add fresh oil to the pan to prevent the bits that settle on the bottom from burning. Warm the oil once again and finish frying.
7. If you are serving the meatballs in tomato sauce, warm it in a saucepan over medium heat and slip the browned meatballs into them. Cook them through, about 20 minutes. Serve at once. If you plan to make the meatballs in advance, cool and store them, with or without the tomato sauce, in a covered storage container in the refrigerator for up to 4 days. Alternatively, freeze them for up to 3 months.
Main photo: Lamb and eggplant meatballs in tomato sauce for Valentine’s Day. Credit: Nathan Hoyt/Forktales
Corn polenta has traveled the globe to become a staple in world-class restaurants. Yet for more than 400 years, it sustained the peoples of Italy’s poor northeastern regions. Its origins go back even further, to the pulmentum of the Romans that was a mainstay of the commoner. Prior to the 17th century — before corn was transplanted to Italy from the New World — this porridge was made from hulled and crushed grains of various kinds, including farro (also known in English as “emmer”), barley and millet as well as chestnut, fava bean or chickpea flour.
Polenta as a staple
After maize took firm root in the soils of northern Italy, it became the primary staple. It wasn’t eaten fresh but rather dried and ground into polenta. For four centuries, it alone kept the wolf from the door for the common people in Veneto and Lombardy. In the 1800s, it became fashionable for the wealthy to eat it until it was ubiquitous at every meal, accompanying virtually every dish, as bread does today in other regions.
The poor ate it plain — there was often little else to eat. The upper class added condiments to it or made it into elaborate baked dishes called pasticci. Eventually, cornmeal infiltrated central and southern Italy, including the island of Sardinia, where my ancestors ate it with tomatoey stewed lamb tripe or layered with meat sauce and sheep’s cheese, much like lasagna, in a baked dish called polenta pasticciata.
In its simplest guise, polenta is served “loose” as a side dish, like its close cousin, the grits of the American south. It can be flavored simply with a dribble of olive oil or butter and Parmigiano cheese for a dish called polenta unta. Cooks in Italy’s Alpine regions like to slather it with soft cheeses such as runny gorgonzola dolce or taleggio. Often, it provides a bed for soaking up the tasty juices of cooked meats (such as sausages) or vegetables, for instance sautéed mushrooms. Or it might be turned out onto a marble slab, allowed to set, then cut into pieces that have countless uses. When fried or grilled, they become crostini di polenta, polenta “toasts.” For pasticciata, the squares are layered with a sauce and topped with cheese before baking, much like lasagna.
Traditional and modern cooking methods
Cooking polenta in the traditional copper paiolo is still a daily ritual in some parts of the polenta belt (Veneto, Piedmont, Trentino-Alto Adige, and Lombardy), though restaurant chefs typically replace the wooden stirring tool, called a bastone, with an electric stirring mechanism that attaches to the pot. For home cooking, a sturdy wooden spoon will do, provided it has a long handle to prevent splattering and/or burning your hand. (The whisk is not commonly used in Italy, but I have found that a heavy professional grade one is ideal for turning out a fine, lump-free polenta.) You’ll also need a heavy-bottomed pot.
But the real secret to perfect results lies not so much in the equipment as in the method. Continual stirring in one direction (clockwise, according to tradition) transforms cornmeal into billows of creamy golden polenta. The addition of the grains in a slow, steady stream a pioggia, “like rain,” assures that they are incorporated smoothly. If the polenta seems to be drying out before it is cooked, a little boiling water is added to keep it soft and easy to stir. Polenta is ready when it pulls away easily from the sides of the pan with the spoon. (The COOK’s test kitchen developed a microwave technique that requires minimal stirring to accompany an article I wrote in 1989 that received much attention, and some years later, Marcella Hazan published a recipe titled “Polenta by No-Stirring” in her book “Essentials of Italian Cooking,” which produces good results. I recently asked Victor Hazan, the late author’s husband and collaborator, about it, and he explained the derivation of the method. See my post on Forktales for the details.)
Polenta may be yellow or white, depending on the maize variety. Both are milled into fine or coarse grinds. The fine type is preferred for loose polenta. The coarse grind produces pleasantly gritty, rustic-style polenta that the Italians say can be sensed sotto i denti, “under the teeth.” It is ideal for cutting into pieces, as described earlier. (Note that the American type of cornmeal typically used for muffins or cornbread is not interchangeable with polenta; it is a different product entirely and will produce an inedible, cement-like porridge if cooked in water.)
Nowadays, there is another factor to consider. “Instant” polenta, which is pre-cooked before it is dehydrated, has virtually replaced the long-cooking kind — even in Italy. Although one can get it on the table much more quickly, it doesn’t compare to the richly flavored, silky original that can take 40 minutes or more to cook. Like so many “new and improved” foods, convenience is put ahead of quality and flavor. However, quick-cooking polenta does work well in dishes with several components, so you can have success making my maternal grandmother Giulia’s polenta pasticciata with either variety. Nonna Giulia Esu died long before I was born, but her recipe for this provincial Sardinian dish was one of her jewels that was passed down by my mother.
Nonna Giulia’s Polenta “Lasagna” With Pork and Red Wine Ragù
Note: The finest pecorino (sheep) cheeses are produced in Sardinia, Lazio and Tuscany. You can find the young, semi-soft varieties at most fine cheesemongers; alternatively, you can substitute Spanish Manchego as directed.
Prep time: 45 minutes
Cook time: About 1 hour
Total time: About 2 1/4 hours
Yield: 8 servings
For the sauce:
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, minced
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 carrot, chopped
1 small celery stalk with leaves, chopped
1 teaspoon pulverized fennel seeds
1 pound ground pork
½ cup good-quality dry red wine
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1 (35-ounce) can plum tomatoes, drained, seeded and chopped, juices reserved
3 tablespoons minced fresh basil leaves
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
For the polenta:
7 1/2 cups water
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 cups fine- or coarse-grained imported Italian yellow polenta or “quick-cook” polenta
Olive oil for preparing work surface and baking dish
1/2 pound semi-soft pecorino such as Fior di Sardegna (or Manchego aged three to six months), shredded
For the sauce:
1. Warm the oil in a skillet. Stir in the onion, garlic, carrot and celery and sauté over medium-low heat until vegetables are soft, 12 to 15 minutes.
2. Add the fennel seeds, pork and continue to sauté until the meat colors lightly, stirring occasionally, about 4 minutes. Stir in the wine and allow to evaporate (about 1 minute).
3. Dilute the tomato paste in a few tablespoons of the reserved canned-tomato juices and add it to the skillet, followed by the tomatoes with another 1/2 cup of the reserved juices, basil and salt. Stir well. Partially cover and simmer over the lowest possible heat for 1 hour, stirring frequently. The sauce should become thick and fragrant. If it seems to be drying out, add a few more tablespoons of the reserved tomato juices.
For the polenta:
1. While the ragù is simmering, bring the water to a boil in a large saucepan. (Keep a kettle of boiling water on the back burner should you need extra.) Add the salt.
2. Stirring constantly with a long-handled wooden spoon, add the polenta in a slow, constant stream to prevent lumps from forming. Simmer, stirring constantly, until the polenta is very thick and creamy and pulls away from the side of the pan, about 40 minutes. If you are using quick-cook polenta, you may need to add a little boiling water to ensure that it doesn’t get too thick. (You can also cook it longer than the instructions specify in order to obtain a creamy consistency — up to 20 minutes or so, adding more boiling water as needed.)
3. Use a rubber spatula dipped into hot water to spread the polenta out into a rectangle about 1/4-inch thick. Let set until cooled completely and firm, about 15 minutes. Cut into even 3-inch-by-4-inch rectangles; set aside. Lightly oil a 9-inch-by-13-inch baking dish.
1. Heat the oven to 450 F.
2. Arrange half the polenta pieces on the bottom of the baking dish. Top them with half of the sauce and spread to cover. Sprinkle half the cheese over the sauce. Repeat with another layer of sauce, followed by the remaining cheese. Bake until heated through and the cheese is golden brown, 15 to 20 minutes.
3. Let stand for 10 minutes. Cut into pieces and serve.
Main photo: Polenta pasticciata, in “Italian Home Cooking: 125 Recipes to Comfort Your Soul,” by Julia della Croce (Kyle Books). Credit: Hirsheimer & Hamilton
We’ve come a long way since the days when Americans thought Italian cuisine meant spaghetti or ziti in rivers of “marinara” set on red-checkered tablecloths. Even if mistaken notions persist about what genuine Italian cooking really is, we’ve embraced every new pasta that has come our way (think squid-ink fettuccine or agnolotti al plin), and we’ve become more sauce savvy, too. Amatriciana and puttanesca are commonplace in restaurant and home kitchens alike, and “carbonara” is a household word from New York to Nebraska. Arrabbiata, cacio e pepe, aglio e olio — you name it, we love them all.
Nevertheless, the canon of pasta-and-sauce pairings has remained something of a mystery outside the borders of Italy. The immense number of different shapes is daunting to us foreigners; out of sheer exasperation, we find ourselves asking, “Why so many?” There are “priests’ hats,” “wolves’ eyes” and “horses’ teeth,” “church bells,” “little loves” and “kiss catchers.” It is not enough to make pasta bows (farfalle); there must also be little bows (farfallette) and much bigger bows (farfalloni). There are not only small reeds called cannelle, but also very small reeds, large smooth reeds and large grooved reeds. Some shapes have more than one name (penne lisce and mostaccioli, for example, are one and the same).
The roots of this maccheroni madness go back to the fierce rivalry among dried-pasta manufacturers in 19th century Naples, where the southern Italian pasta industry mushroomed during the Industrial Revolution. At one point about 1,500 pastifici competed for business, engaging in price wars or introducing ever-newer products to lure customers to their brand. But probably more than anything, the seemingly endless variations reflect the expansive nature of the Italian people — their imagination and love of show.
The American versus the Italian approach
Americans are characteristically laissez-faire about pairing rules. James Beard once told me that he saw no reason to be bound by tradition; he believed we ought to be inventive with pasta recipes. By contrast, the Italians are always mindful of the pairing principles derived from a long history of pasta eating. Over the centuries, tried-and-true guidelines have emerged, based primarily on the ingredients in the dough and the architecture of each resulting shape — hard wheat or soft wheat, dried pasta or fresh, long or short, smooth or ridged. Various pastas absorb and combine with sauces in different ways depending on their wall thickness, density and structure.
Meanwhile, sauces — condimenti, as the Italians call them — have inherent texture, flavor and color attributes. The foundation of most is olive oil or butter, given body with tomato purée, meat, vegetables and/or cheese. The art of pairing can probably best be explained by herding all the unruly strands and little shapes into three separate tribes, as it were — each with their own swimming pools or sauces. (Here we will concern ourselves with dried pasta alone.)
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Golden rules for pairing dried pasta and sauces
Capelli d’angelo (“angel hair”), cappellini (“fine hair”), vermicelli (“little worms”), fedelini (“very fine noodles”): Use all in broths or broth-based soups. The latter two, being thicker, are suitable for light, sieved tomato sauces, but none of these long, lightweight pastas can support dense cream-based or meat sauces.
Spaghetti, spaghettini, spaghetti alla chitarra (“guitar-string spaghetti”), mezze linguine (“half linguine”): This group is sturdy enough for olive-oil sauces such as aglio e olio as well as tomato- or brothy seafood-based sauces that easily slip along the surface.
Linguine (“long tongues,” aka bavette), perciatelli, bucatini, fusilli bucati lunghi (“long hollow coils”): Because these shapes have more weight than those in the previous subcategories, they will all support a relatively unctuous sauce such as basil pesto, but they are also sprightly enough to consort with sauces suited to medium-weight long pasta. By tradition, linguine is inexplicably inseparable from fish or shellfish sauces, though fluid tomato sauces make a pleasant match, too.
The tubular shapes have relatively thick walls, which make them sturdy enough to support not only chunky tomato-based sauces with or without meat, as well as cheese or cream preparations. (Diagonal cuts are especially handy in this regard.) Despite the versatility of these shapes, the size of the ingredients in accompanying sauces should be kept in mind. For example, wide tubular cuts are big enough to trap meat bits and vegetable chunks (think rigatoni with broccoli and anchovies); not so in the case of petite variants such as pennette (“little quills”). Tubular shapes are also ideal for baked dishes because they hold their shape and firmness during a second cooking in the oven.
Anelli (“rings”), ditaloni (“thimbles”): Ideal for pasta e fagioli and other bean soups because the ring shape nests cannellini beans, lentils and such.
Penne (“quills”), penne rigate (“ridged quills”), penne lisce (“smooth quills”), pennette, rigatoni: These go with olive oil- or butter-based vegetable, meat and tomato sauces and also with cream-based concoctions. Olive oil-based sauces stick to ridged shapes better than to smooth ones. The slimmer pennette are best matched with light vegetable or tomato sauces containing, say, wild mushrooms or eggplant (though traditionalists wouldn’t dream of making pasta alla Norma with anything but spaghetti).
Farfalle (“butterflies”): Their delicate “wingspan” suits them to light sauces based on either olive oil or butter, as long as there are no big obstacles in their flight path.
Fusilli, fusilli corti (“short fusilli”), tortiglioni (hollow “spirals”), radiatori (“radiators”), gemelli (“twins”) and various twists: Shapes like these are designed to trap cheese and ricotta sauces or unctuous nut sauces, such as pestos. Ragù and other meat sauces love to collect in their coils, too.
Strozzapreti (“priest stranglers”): These handmade dried forms call for tomato, meat and sausage sauces.
Conchiglie (“shells”), riccioli (“curls”), ruote (“wheels”), lumache (“snails”): Short and stubby shapes such as these work well with hearty sauces featuring meat, vegetables, cheese or cream.
Main photo: Vintage pasta label. Credit: Courtesy of Gerardo di Nola Pastificio, Naples, reprinted from “Pasta Classica: The Art of Italian Pasta Cooking,” by Julia della Croce
I never understood the aversion to fruitcake until someone sent me one of those clunkers that the humorist Russell Baker said he deplored, dating from a Christmas dinner when a small piece he dropped shattered his right foot. The offending object “had been in my grandmother’s possession since 1880,” he joked in his 1983 essay “Fruitcakes Are Forever.” “Fruitcake is the only food durable enough to become a family heirloom.”
What gives it a bad rap is the reliance, especially by commercial bakeries, on glacéed fruits, those sugar-embalmed specimens that no longer have a whiff of fruit in them. They’re fine if you want your holiday dessert to glow like a Christmas tree, but they’re all wrong if it’s flavor you are after. Good fruitcake is another story, one that evokes Christmas probably more than any other sweet. Imagine capturing the essence of the Sicilian wine grape Zibibbo, Montagnoli figs and Montmorency cherries in one bite: The results can be intoxicating. If the fruit tastes good, well, then, the cake will taste good, too. As the Italians say, “Good with good makes good.”
A taste of tradition
As it happens, I cut my teeth on English fruitcake. Properly made, it is a lovely affair — ambrosial, aromatic and dense like its cousin plum pudding, sans suet. Those who have the patience for cutting up all the fruits and lining the pans properly to prevent the batter from sticking will find it well worth doing once a year — not least because it has a certain romance to it, like English leather, a vintage Rolls or aged Port. It has a patina. I adore its rich and spicy flavors, moist crumb and liquorous cheer. I love the cool glaze that frosts the surface and melts the moment it greets my warm tongue.
There is simply nothing more evocative of the winter holidays, especially those I spent living in Scotland when we left our doors open and neighbors stopped by with gifts of homemade baked goods or marmalades and stayed for a tipple and a chat. My landlord, who produced really good British fare by faithfully following the recipes in “Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management,” made an especially grand version that was covered with a layer of almond paste and, over that, royal icing. The cake was baked in August and left to cure under rum-soaked wraps until the time came to decorate it for Christmas. It recalled for me the flavors of my mother’s gâteau d’uva, described in Ada Boni’s Italian classic “Il Talismano della Felicità,” the only cookbook in our house, as “a famous English fruitcake.”
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The key ingredients
I was compelled to make my mother’s cake to see how it would compare to the British original. The recipe she sent me listed dried fruit. But what kind? Living as I did then on paltry wages, I couldn’t make a long-distance call to New York for more details — I didn’t even have a phone — but I was sure she avoided the embalmed sort. I went to a pricey greengrocer on Edinburgh’s Princes Street where the Queen’s steward was reputed to order fruits when the royals were in residence. There, I spent a week’s wages on the best dried fruits I could find. The result? My fruitcake exceeded even my mother’s.
Fruitcakes fall into three basic categories: dark, light and white, depending upon the proportion of dark sugar or molasses used to sweeten the cake. This version is dark. Old English recipes call for brandy, but I use a combination of vermouth, sherry and brandy. Any of them will do — as will the Scots’ preference, whiskey, or Gran Marnier, as Carole Walter, author of the classic “Great Cakes” (Ballantine Books), suggests.
Perhaps the most important ingredient, however, is time. When I asked Walter how long fruitcake should age, she said, “Making fruitcake well before Christmas makes it easier to slice because, as the cake matures, the ingredients hold together better.” But don’t worry: Susan Purdy, author of the definitive “A Piece of Cake” (Atheneum), offered tips, which you will find in the recipe, for accelerating the process, so you can make the cake in time to shatter your holiday crowd’s expectations (rather than their feet).
Fruit for fruitcake
You will need two or three days to make this cake. I’ve listed my favorite combination of dried fruits, but you can substitute others if you like. The important thing is to use high-quality fruit that is still moist and naturally colorful as well as good liquor. Also important are sturdy aluminum pans, never dark metal or glass pans, which absorb too much heat and cause the cake bottom to burn easily. The classic shape is round, but my preference is to use two loaf pans along with muffin tins for extra batter, ensuring that I will have one cake to serve immediately, another under moist wraps when that one runs out, and some muffin-sized mini-cakes, which make lovely gifts. (For a single, round cake, use an angel-food cake form.)
Prep time: 2 hours plus 3 days to 2 weeks for curing
Cooking time: 2 hours
Total time: 4 hours plus at least 3 days curing time
Yield: Two large loaves (12 to 15 servings per loaf) plus several muffins, or one tube cake (24 to 30 servings total) plus two baby loaves or several muffins, as directed.
For the cake:
1 pound mixed, moist dried fruits, such as pear, peach, apricot and banana
1 pound moist dried figs
7/8 pound golden raisins
1/8 pound dried cherries
1/8 pound candied ginger, chopped
1/2 cup good sweet vermouth, such as Vermouth di Torino, plus more as needed
1/2 cup good medium-dry sherry, such as Oloroso, plus more as needed
1 cup unsalted butter at room temperature, plus extra for greasing pan
2 cups packed dark brown sugar
1/2 cup currant jelly
1/2 cup molasses
Zest and juice of 1 navel orange
Zest and juice of 1 medium lemon
3 cups sifted unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground mace
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 cup Cognac or good brandy, plus extra for soaking cheesecloth
1/2 pound skinned hazelnuts, lightly toasted and coarsely chopped
For the icing:
2/3 cup sifted confectioner’s sugar (plus more if needed for consistency)
2 teaspoons cold water
Zest of 1 orange or lemon plus 1 teaspoon of its juice
Special equipment: Two 9-by-5-by-3-inch loaf pans plus several muffin cups, or one 10-by-4-inch tube pan plus two baby loaf pans or several muffin cups; wax paper or baking parchment; paper muffin liners; enough cheesecloth for three layers of wrapping; heavy aluminum foil; airtight cake tins the same dimensions as your cakes.
For the cake:
1. A day or two before baking the cakes, use scissors to cut the mixed dried fruits and figs into very small pieces. In a large ceramic mixing bowl, combine the pieces with the raisins, cherries, ginger, vermouth and sherry. Cover securely with plastic wrap and set out to macerate until the fruits are well softened, using a rubber spatula to mix the ingredients now and then. To accelerate the process, you can cover the bowl and heat it in a microwave, 30 seconds at a time for 2 to 3 minutes total, until the fruit has softened. Add a few tablespoons more vermouth and sherry to moisten if it still seems dry.
2. Place a large baking pan filled with water on the floor of your oven and preheat to 300 F.
3. Grease your baking pans with butter. Cut wax paper or parchment to line the inside walls of the loaf pans or tube pan completely.
4. In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar together until fluffy. Beat in the eggs one at a time. Blend in the jelly, molasses and orange and lemon zest and juices.
5. Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and spices into the creamed butter mixture alternately with 1/4 cup Cognac or brandy. Blend in the soaked, marinated fruits and their liquor, followed by the hazelnuts.
6. Turn the batter into the baking pans, filling them 2/3 full. Tap pans on the counter firmly to close up any air pockets. Mound the batter somewhat in the center. Bake on the middle oven rack until a tester comes out clean and the cakes begin to come away from the sides of the pan, about 2 hours. (The small loaf pans or cupcakes will cook more quickly, so check them well in advance.) If necessary, cover cakes with foil for the last half hour to prevent the surface from burning.
7. Set the pans on cake racks and let them settle for 30 minutes, then ease them out of the pans onto a work surface. Carefully remove the paper. Invert and cool completely, right side up.
8. Cut cheesecloth in pieces large enough to wrap each cake in three layers, then soak the pieces thoroughly in brandy or Cognac. To accelerate the curing, poke holes throughout the cakes with thin metal skewers to enable them to soak up the spirits quickly. Wrap the cakes in the cheesecloth well, then wrap them again in several layers of heavy foil and seal tightly. Place each in a heavy-duty plastic bag with a secure seal. Store the loaves in an airtight tin for at least three days or, ideally, up to two weeks or more; they’ll keep for as long as six months. Check them periodically and brush with more spirits if they seem dry. Store the cakes in a cool, dry place or, in warmer temperatures, place into a refrigerator.
For the icing:
1. Whisk together the confectioner’s sugar, water and orange or lemon zest plus juice in a small bowl to make a smooth and thick but pourable glaze.
2. Lace the glaze over the cake, letting it drip down the sides, and serve. Use a long, serrated bread knife for slicing.
Main photo: Christmas fruitcake, © Julia della Croce 2014. Credit: Nathan Hoyt/Forktales
What do you call a truffle that is the size of a football? “The million-dollar mushroom,” said my daughter, Celina, when I phoned her en route to Sotheby’s for a media preview of the largest ever found. It was rumored that a Chinese prospect had already offered precisely that much. But the hulking fungus, weighing in at 4.16 pounds, came up short the following day when it went for a mere $61,250 on the auction block — less than $15,000 a pound.
If even the humblest truffle is too rich for your blood, you might find comfort in knowing that the seller, Sabatino Tartufi, will donate the proceeds to two charities that represent causes close to the owners’ hearts: The Children’s Glaucoma Foundation and Citymeals-on-Wheels. “We’ve been doing business in New York since 1999, and we want to give back,” family representative Gabriel Balestra said. His grandparents founded the company in 1911 in a small storefront in the tiny Umbrian village of Montecastrilli; it has since mushroomed into a premier source for fresh truffles around the globe.
The ultimate delicacy
Sotheby’s, the storied auction house for art, jewels, antiques and real estate, has sold everything from Jackie O’s pearls to the Soviet space capsule Vostok 3KA-2. Asked if it had ever handled truffles, Sotheby’s Wine CEO and president Jamie Ritchie, who officiated as auctioneer, said, “The only perishable we’ve sold before is wine.” If some of that wine is going for $10,000 a bottle, at least the buyer knows he has time to drink it.
Buying a truffle is a dicier proposition. Perishability is a big concern once it is exposed to air. “Each day it ages and the perfume diminishes,” English food writer and truffle expert Gareth Jones said when he read the news about the truffle on the auction block. “[It’s] all too sad. One in London rotted in a chef’s safe when he went on holiday without leaving the key!” The average walnut-sized white truffle will stay fresh for up to 10 days if stored properly; the four pounder, unearthed on Dec. 2, has two more weeks of “shelf life,” according to Balestra.
The story of its discovery is inauspicious enough: A boy named Matteo went for a walk with his 9-month-old puppy, who sniffed out the treasure. Such specimens are usually discovered by professional hunters with years of experience and dogs trained in stalking the elusive fungus. Asked where, precisely, the boy found it, Balestra would only say that it was somewhere in northern Umbria. According to Jones, hunters in central Italy are doing better this year than their competitors in the white-truffle paradise of Piedmont. This is unusual, because Umbria is better known for the more-common black truffle. However, the white species, Tuber magnatum pico, does grow in the upper Tiber Valley in addition to Orvieto and the mountainous area around Gubbio and Gualdo Tadino, where it burrows in with the roots of the poplar, the linden, the willow and the horn beam.
As for what could have led to such a monster size, Balestra admitted, “I don’t know why it’s so big.” He explained that, like all other truffles harvested this season, it started as a spore colony in the damp undergrowth about six months ago. Perhaps the rain that did such damage to Italy’s olive groves was a godsend for its truffles.
The treasure was unveiled for no more than five minutes — the dirt left clinging to its surface to prolong its freshness — before Balestra rescued it from the spotlight. “Light and heat dry it out, and its firmness could be compromised,” he said, swaddling it with linen and returning it to a secure cooler.
1 Auctioneer Jamie Ritche introduces the celebrity truffle
How to handle truffles — carefully
The big question is, what will the winning bidder do with the delicacy? That’s a lot of tagliatelle to cover. Here are some tips for working with white truffles, adapted from my book “Umbria: Regional Recipes from the Heartland of Italy” (Chronicle Books, 2003). They should be dipped quickly in cool water to remove any clinging earth and blotted with a soft cotton cloth. They are never grated or chopped but rather shaved into paper-thin flakes with a special handheld wooden device into which a razor is secured. Nor should they ever be cooked; instead, the raw flakes are gently warmed when scattered onto the surface of hot food upon serving. Umbrian cooks like to use them on eggs lightly scrambled in butter; fresh egg pasta with an uncomplicated butter-based sauce; risotto cooked in butter and fresh veal broth, with aged Parmigiano-Reggiano folded in at the end; trout cooked in butter (its flesh is naturally delicate and a perfect canvas for the light strokes of the truffle); and butter-sautéed veal scallopini deglazed with dry white wine. They would be spoiled if used in dishes that contain garlic, vinegar, rustic tomato sauces, sheep’s cheese or other assertive ingredients.
A final note: Beware of truffle essence that is artificially produced and/or mixed with olive oil and passed off as genuine. To prevent such fraud in restaurants, Remo Rossi of the Umbrian Gastronomical Association suggests insisting that the truffle be sliced directly onto the plate at the table.
“Pasta is to the Italians somewhere between a sacrament and a psychotropic drug.” So said Slow Food co-founder Folco Portinari of his countrymen’s food habits at a conference 20 years ago. He offered the startling fact that anthropologists studying Italy’s gastronomical landscape had tracked down as many as 1,000 forms of pasta. In the dried category alone, there were 350 variants, from the familiar spaghetti and fusilli to exotic shapes such as Ave Marias, cecamariti (“husband blinders”) and the racy cazzetti. Yet every now and then, a pasta maker comes up with another one.
The latest was recently introduced by Rustichella d’Abruzzo, which has been turning out some of the best dried pasta in the world for four generations — good enough for Pavarotti and Michelin-starred chefs alike. Its new product, recently launched at a New York City press event with considerable splash, is so revolutionary in the pasta universe that it could be likened to the discovery of a planet. Pasta Rapida 90″ is an artisan spaghetti conceived to cook in 90 seconds to commemorate the firm’s 90-year anniversary, the makers said, and to “end the controversy between Futurism and spaghetti.”
The comment refers to the Italian artistic and political movement that had its heyday in the 1920s — coincident with the founding of the company in 1924 by Gaetano Sergiacomo, maternal grandfather of proprietors Stefania and Gianluigi Peduzzi. In 1932, Futurism’s leading spokesman — poet, social reformer, misogynist and crackpot F.T. Marinetti — wrote “Cucina Futuristica,” a manifesto against pasta. He led a crusade to convince the Italians that their pasta “addiction” had produced a nation of dreamers that was mired in the past and would bring the country to ruin. Marinetti designed menus to prepare them for the “more aerial and rapid” lifestyle of the 20th century, but his campaign failed. Mussolini made the sleek new aluminum trains run on time, but he couldn’t outlaw pasta. Rustichella prevailed.
Tradition meets innovation
The funny thing about the Italians is that while they are steeped in tradition, they are forever embracing new ideas, whether they are designing Ferraris or making pasta. Rustichella is no exception. It is produced in the Vestina hills of Abruzzo, a region wedged between the Apennines and the sea that is rich with artisanal food traditions, having changed little since the sixth century, when it was described by one Ottavio Mamilio as “a breast that dispenses milk and honey.” The producers say it is the valley’s wheat — exceptional for its high protein content, mixed with mountain water, then extruded and dried at low temperatures for up to 56 hours (compared with 4 to 6 hours for industrial brands) — that makes their pasta so good.
From Abruzzo, then, you would expect the slowest of slow foods. Instead, Rapida 90″ is designed to cook in the shortest time possible — “without any sacrifice in flavor or porosity,” the proprietors said at its debut. Though it is made with the same raw materials and passed through the same bronze dies as the company’s traditional spaghetti, giving it the desired roughness that sauces cling to, its creation required a serious engineering effort that took nearly two years. Rapida is not pre-cooked; there is no messing with the wheat endosperm where the proteins reside; there are no additives. The secret, which is under international patent, is in its shape. A conventional spaghetto is a cylinder with a hole in the middle invisible to the naked eye. As it boils, the gluten fills in the hole, cooking in about 10 minutes. Rapida, by contrast, is designed with a gap along its length that looks like a seam. It opens during cooking, enabling faster penetration of water. Seconds before the pasta is done, the “memory effect” of glutens causes the gap to close again, returning the strand to its original form.
To the home cook, the breakthrough may not seem important, but for the professional chef, it is revolutionary. One of a restaurant kitchen’s biggest challenges is juggling simultaneous cooking procedures for multiple orders. Hence the all-too-common shortcut of pre-cooking the pasta, at risk of wasting portions that go unused. Rapida eliminates such waste, and the reduced cooking time, factored exponentially, means less energy use to boot.
After talks with Rapida’s chief designer, Giancarlo d’Annibale, I discovered that the new pasta has some health advantages as well. Because exposure to heat destroys wheat’s complex gluten structures, the shorter cooking time preserves more of the pasta’s protein.
I tasted Rapida at its debut, where Michelin-starred chef William Zonfa tossed it in a saffron-tinted sauce specked with leek confit and guanciale. Rapida has the rich flavor of durum wheat that only semolina pasta delivers, but because the invisible gap makes the strands less dense, it slides down the throat like delicate, fresh egg pasta. It was in my stomach before it left the pan.
All in all, we’d have to conclude that Rapida is a keeper. These pasta makers were using their noodles when they invented the new spaghetti-of-speed.
Last-Minute Lemon Sauce for Speedy Spaghetti
© Julia della Croce 2014
Make this quick sauce while the water for one package of Rapida is boiling.
Prep time: 4 minutes
Cook time: 2 minutes
Total time: 6 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
3/4 cup good extra virgin olive oil
6 small garlic cloves, halved and bruised
Zest of 4 large organic lemons
6 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
In an ample, heavy skillet over low heat, warm the olive oil with the garlic for 2 minutes, pressing the cloves without smashing to release their flavor. Turn off the heat. Stir in the remaining ingredients just before adding the cooked pasta to the skillet. Serve piping hot.
Main photo: Speedy spaghetti with last-minute lemon sauce. Credit: Nathan Hoyt