Julia della Croce is a journalist and James Beard Award-winning cookbook author and cooking teacher. Many of her titles have been translated into 13 other languages and distributed worldwide. Her work has appeared in many publications including Cook’s, Food & Wine, Art & Antiques and the Boston Globe. She has broadcast extensively on radio and television, including NPR and the Food Network. Her blog, Forktales, has been cited by The New York Times' Diner's Journal "What We’re Reading" section.

Besides working toward the preservation of traditional Italian cuisine through publishing and teaching, Julia has dedicated herself to advocacy work for better food and sustainable agriculture. She pioneered an award-winning healthy school food program at an independent school in New York and developed a nutrition program providing natural food and local farm-raised produce to an emergency food pantry in New York City serving some 900,000 people every year. She serves on the advisory committee of the New York State Assembly Task Force on Food, Farm and Nutrition Policy. Read more about Julia on www.juliadellacroce.com.

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A Fruitcake Everyone Will Love (Really!) Image

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.”

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

Fruit for fruitcake
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Dried fruit assortment. Credit: Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

Christmas 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.

Ingredients

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

6 eggs

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.

Directions

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

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Meet The World’s Most Expensive White Truffle Image

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.

A professional truffle hunter hoping for the big find in Tuscany. Credit: Paolo Destefanis, www.paolodestefanis.com

A professional truffle hunter hoping for the big find in Tuscany. Credit: Paolo Destefanis, www.paolodestefanis.com

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

1 Auctioneer Jamie Ritche introduces the celebrity truffle
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Auctioneer Jamie Ritchie introduces the celebrity truffle at Sotheby’s. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

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.

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90-Second Spaghetti: A Revolution In The Pasta World Image

“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.

Futurist spaghetti

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.

RustichellaTeam

RustichellaTeam
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The Rustichella pasta “family.” Credit: Rustichella D’Abruzzo

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.

The benefits

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.

Rapida can be purchased in store or online at Dean & Deluca, Market Hall Foods or Murray’s. For further availability, visit the the importer’s website.

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

Ingredients

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

Directions

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

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Serve Forth The Apple To Give Thanks Image

Despite the myths that get bandied around about what was served at the first Thanksgiving, the only report we have, from Pilgrim chronicler Edward Winslow, says simply that the Wampanoag contributed five deer. The claim that there was turkey on that day is pure speculation. As for dessert, we might speculate on that, too. We can guess from the letters of settlers such as William Horton that they found ways to work with the “great store of fruits” they discovered (“Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers,” Alexander Young). Since the British have long had a love affair with the apple, they no doubt made use of the many species that grew wild here.

American history meets Italian tradition

The proverbial turkey feast with all the trimmings persists, even in households like the one I grew up in, where Italian cooking prevailed every other day of the year. The immigrants weren’t newcomers to thanksgivings. To all peoples with peasant traditions, the autumn feast is a familiar ritual. You could call ours a fusion Thanksgiving. The bird was dressed with bread-and-pork sausage stuffing; the pureed sweet potatoes were baked under a buttery, sweet walnut crust; and fennel bubbled in a béchamel-and-parmigiano gratin. No Thanksgiving ever began without garlicky stuffed mushrooms and the perfunctory antipasto platter, and there was always pumpkin pie for dessert — made from fresh zucca, of course.

I added my own rituals when I began cooking for myself. In the spirit of the harvest the early settlers enjoyed, apples are always on the table in one form or other. This year, they will be stuffed with amaretti, the delicious almond cookies of Lombardy. The dish hearkens back to my life in Italy, where I learned to stuff peaches with crushed amaretti for baking — a summer recipe of the Piedmont. In the autumn, I must substitute apples, with no regrets.

Choosing the right apples

Apples have as much a practical as a symbolic meaning for me. It seems a pity not to include them when they are so fresh and juicy in their season, especially now that there are such magnificent apples in the farmers markets. Besides, what fruit is associated as much as the apple with fertility, the underlying invocation behind all harvest celebrations?

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How to core an apple. Step 1: Trim the hairy blossom end. Credit, all photos: © Nathan Hoyt

These baked apples offer an alternative for guests who don’t like pumpkin pie (there have been more than a few of them at my Thanksgiving table over the years). Topped with good vanilla ice cream or thick cream in the English fashion, they are unbeatable comfort food on Thanksgiving or at any other time of the apple season to follow roast turkey, ham or game of any kind.

Granted, they are best made with the proper variety for the purpose — and disappointing with those that are unsuitable. Proper baking apples will keep their shape and juiciness during cooking. Apples that are richly flavored and perfectly wonderful for eating may disintegrate in the oven and burst into a froth; some turn mealy and tasteless or just don’t soften during baking. I have experimented with numerous varieties and found the most success with Fujis, Romes, Braeburns, Macouns and Northern Spies that are neither too large nor too small. As for the amaretti, no purchased cookies beat Lazzaroni Amaretti di Saronno for flavor. You can buy them at any food specialty store nowadays. Alternatively, use another good-quality almond cookie or substitute dry almond biscotti.

One of the best things about these baked apples is that they taste better made a day or two ahead, so that the flesh of the fruit has time to absorb the flavors of the filling. Just reheat at 400 F for 10 to 12 minutes before serving.

Experimenting with different varieties of baking apples: here, Macoun, Braeburn and Rome. Credit: @Nathan Hoyt

Experimenting with different varieties of baking apples: here, Macoun, Braeburn and Rome. Credit: @Nathan Hoyt

Baked Apples With Amaretti Filling

Prep time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: 45 to 60 minutes

Total time: 1 ¼ to 1 ½ hours

Yield: 6 individual portions

Ingredients

6 tablespoons white sugar, divided

6 ounces amaretti, crushed into coarse crumbs

1 tablespoon chopped candied orange peel, or substitute the zest of 1 orange

6 medium (8 to 9 ounces each) Fuji, Rome, Braeburn, Macoun or Northern Spies apples

Juice of half a lemon

4 tablespoons melted unsalted butter

Vanilla ice cream or Devon cream for serving

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Select a shallow, flame-proof baking pan on which the apples will fit without crowding. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of the sugar across the bottom of the pan.

2. In a small bowl, combine the amaretti crumbs and candied orange rind or orange zest; set aside.

3. Prepare the apples (see step-by-step photos below). With a paring knife, trim off the hairy blossom end at the bottom of each apple. Preferably using a melon baller, core the apples, working from the stem down to carve out an ample stuffing cavity without puncturing the bottom. Brush the flesh inside and out with lemon juice as you work to prevent it from turning brown. With a paring knife, peel the skin off halfway down, leaving the skin on the bottom halves intact. Enlarge the opening at the top to show more stuffing, if you like. When all the apples are prepared, brush each with some of the melted butter and immediately roll the top of each apple in some of the remaining sugar to coat.

4. Transfer the apples to the baking pan. Spoon the filling into each cavity and scatter some on top. Sprinkle any remaining sugar over all, and dribble the remining butter on top of the filling.

5. Place the apples on the center rack of the oven. Bake until they are soft but not collapsed and the juices bubbly, 45 minutes to 1 hour (cooking time varies depending on the apple size and variety).

6. Remove the pan from the oven and turn on the broiler. Slide the apples about 2 inches under the broiler flame until the tops caramelize nicely, 1 to 2 minutes, watching them carefully to prevent burning.

7. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream or heavy cream.

Main photo: Baked apples with amaretti filling. Credit: © Nathan Hoyt

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How to Get Rocky Mountain Gelato High Image

It wasn’t much more than 100 years ago that Boulder, on the storied Colorado foothills, was a lively frontier town at the gateway of the Rockies, a bustling supply base for miners venturing into the mountains prospecting for gold and silver. Today, the city of Boulder, still possessed of the pioneer spirit, is a mecca for a different kind of trailblazer, the American artisan.

If the early settlers had meager materials with which to found a cuisine, their descendants raise heritage wild Russian boar, East Friesian dairy sheep and Italian honey bees. They have learned about wine in Friuli and cheese in Tuscany, but they haven’t forgotten their heritage. They’re breeding bison, eating knotweed and foraging for mushrooms in the hills.

It’s not surprising that this is where Chefs Collaborative, a group of chefs, food producers, and movers and shakers in the food industry, would choose to meet for their annual summit, themed “Moving Mountains, Scaling Change.”

Flying over Boulder, the high plains conjured wild mustangs and Spaghetti Westernsa change of scenery from the sultry beaches of Rimini, where I had just been two weeks earlier for the Gelato World Tour finals. Still running on gelato fumes, I was now in for three heady days of meeting and eating, Colorado style. We talked hogs. We talked beef. We talked sheep. We talked chicken. We talked humane ranching; grass-fed, sustainable animal husbandry; natural curing; GMO and factory farming. We talked how to distribute small-scale harvests and handcrafted foods to a wider public. Generally, we celebrated food.

But the gelato gods weren’t done with me. Taking a breather from our think tank, we ventured onto Pearl Street in Boulder’s colorful historic district, where a shop window with this inscription caught my eye:

“We promise to never serve you gelato that wasn’t made today.”

The real stuff

I knew that could mean only one thing. Someone who had learned the art in Italy was making the real stuff — silky, small-batch, gelato from scratch — in this Colorado town.

We wandered into the shop, Fior di Latte, and sure enough, the gelatière, Bryce Licht, told us that he and his wife had learned the art in Italy. Five years ago, he left his native Boulder for the Veneto on a research grant. At first he studied marketing. Then, he said, he fell in love with Giulia De Meo, a Venetian. She taught him how to cook genuine Italian food. Gelato was their obsession. “We decided to start our own business and apprenticed with gelatièri who had shops in Treviso,” he said. “One of them was the Italian gelato champion in 2011. We got to see behind the scenes … and we fell in love with the business.”

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Bryce Licht, gelatière. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

The couple moved back to Boulder and immersed themselves in the local food scene, selling their gelato from a cart at the farmers market and supplying neighborhood restaurants. They lucked out again when they found a sliver of a space in which to set up shop in the hub of the hip main street.

As we talked, I scanned the pans overflowing with delicious-looking fruit, nut and chocolate gelatos when my eyes pounced on a mound studded with fresh pear. Could it be? Yes! With my first lick, I was transported back to the Lido in Venice, where an old man with a gelato cart had piled spun frozen pear ambrosia onto cones for my little girls and me one summer many years ago. I’ve been yearning for that elusive flavor ever since.

Seasonal fruit

While I scarfed down the gelato, Licht explained their obsession with using fresh seasonal fruit whenever they find it.

“I saw local pears at the farmers market, and so I’m making gelato with them now,” he said. “Soon it’ll be pumpkins and butternut.”

Fior di Latte's pear gelato. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

Fior di Latte’s pear gelato. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

Fior di Latte will offer two varieties. One is a pumpkin and Chinese five-spice with star anise, cloves, cinnamon, Sichuan pepper and fennel. The other is more traditional in Venice. “It really tastes just like a delicious pumpkin with no added spices other than [sugar] and a pinch of salt,” Licht said. “Of course, the pumpkin is fresh.”

The couple source all their supplies carefully. “We use only natural ingredients, no exceptions. Anything that doesn’t live up to these standards is just not gelato,” Licht said. He also said they use pistachios from Sicily, hazelnuts from Piemonte and almonds from California and toast them before blending them into a paste.

Eating the pear gelato, Italy and Colorado merged. It was both the essence of what I had eaten in Venice so many years ago, and the stuff of what those of us at the summit saw as the way forward. It embodied, I realized, two sides of the same cone.

 Main photo: Sign on Fior di Latte window. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

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The Devil-May-Care Pumpkin Pastry Image

Halloween is observed in countries around the world, but probably no one celebrates it with the gusto that the U.S. does: the gallows pranks; the ghoulish parades and masked parties; the trick-or-treating in costumes. And then there is the ubiquitous grinning jack-o’-lantern, carved from the season’s plentiful pumpkins.

What has come to represent Halloween more than the pumpkin? It doesn’t matter if it’s the jack-o’-lantern or pumpkin candy, pumpkin-head ghosts or the pumpkin-hurling headless horseman of Washington Irving legend (whose Sleepy Hollow grave I can all but see from my front porch). Cucurbita pepo, cultivar of the squash plant, is emblematic of the one day in the year when we mock the specter of death.

Along with the spirit of Halloween goes a devil-may-care attitude about eating sweets. What’s a Halloween vigil without pumpkin-themed treats? For those who’ve outgrown the candy corn and pumpkin marshmallows, why not go Greek for Halloween with baklava — pumpkin baklava, that is. If you like that flaky pastry, you might enjoy this lightened version even more.

For an American spin on an ancient classic, I can’t think of a better trick than to slip the proverbial pumpkin between the buttery layers of this autumnal treat. Here’s the recipe that a fine New Jersey cook and baker, the late Matina Colombotos, a second-generation Greek-American, taught me one October 30 years ago.

Pumpkin baklava with honey-walnut topping.

Pumpkin baklava with honey-walnut topping. Credit: Tom Hopkins

Matina’s Pumpkin or Squash Baklava With Honey-Walnut Topping

Baklava is a traditional nut-filled pastry that is soaked with honey or syrup. Matina layered the phyllo sheets with a sweetened squash mixture and drizzled a little honey over the baked pastry. To keep the phyllo moist while you work with it, cover the sheets with foil or waxed paper and then with a barely damp towel. Leftover phyllo can be wrapped, sealed tightly and refrigerated up to three days.

Prep Time: 1½ hours

Cooking Time: 1 hour, 10 minutes

Total Time: about 2 hours, 45 minutes

Yield: 18 pastries

Ingredients

2 pounds pie pumpkin or butternut squash, halved, seeded, peeled and coarsely grated (about 7 cups)

½ teaspoon salt

⅓ cup light brown sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

⅛ teaspoon nutmeg

24 phyllo sheets (13 inches by 9 inches each), thawed following package instructions

10 tablespoons butter, melted

1 cup walnuts, toasted and chopped fine (4½ ounces)

½ cup golden raisins (3 ounces)

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 375 F.

For the baklava:

2. Mix the squash and ½ teaspoon salt in a large colander set in the sink; let stand 45 minutes, frequently pressing on squash with the back of a spoon to release excess moisture. Transfer drained squash to a large bowl. Add brown sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg; toss to combine.

3. Place 1 sheet of phyllo in a buttered 13-by-9-inch baking pan. Brush phyllo sheet with some of the melted butter. Place a second sheet of phyllo over the first sheet and, again, brush with some of the melted butter. Repeat layering with 10 more sheets of phyllo, brushing each sheet with butter.

4. Spread squash mixture evenly over the layered phyllo and then sprinkle walnuts and raisins over the squash mixture. Place another sheet of phyllo over the squash mixture. Brush the phyllo sheet with melted butter. Repeat layering with remaining 11 sheets of phyllo, brushing each with butter.

5. With the long edge of the pan positioned toward you, cut the baklava, from top to bottom, into six strips that are about 2 inches wide. Turn the pan, short edge toward you, and cut the baklava into three 3-inch wide strips to make a total of 18 rectangles.

6. Adjust oven rack to the middle position. Bake 40 minutes; then reduce the oven temperature to 350 F and bake until the phyllo leave are golden, about 30 minutes longer.

For the topping:

7. Drizzle warm baklava with honey and sprinkle with walnuts. Cool slightly. Serve. (You can cool it completely, cover and store at room temperature up to two days.)

Main photo: Jack-o’-lantern. Credit: Nathan Hoyt

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