Spend any time with me and you’ll quickly learn that I love travel and I love sweets. Thus you can imagine my delight with Francine Segan’s latest cookbook “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2011). Here, the food historian, author and lecturer combines these two favorites, leading readers on a culinary tour of Italy’s extraordinary confections.
In “Dolci,” Segan shares the origins of and inspirations behind such classics as amaretti cookies, panna cotta and granita. She also looks at more contemporary creations, including yogurt semifreddo with radicchio marmalade and egg-less tiramisu. Throughout the book, she provides delectable recipes and fascinating insights into Italian culture and food.
Segan kicks off the journey by exploring the essential ingredients of this country’s sweets. These include candied fruit and fruit peel, grated vanilla bean and grape must syrup, or mosto cotto. She offers handy tips for grinding your own nut flour and substituting problematic ingredients such as raw eggs. Everything that readers need to create “Dolci” desserts can be found in the early pages of the book.
Basics in place, the author leads readers through beautifully photographed chapters on cookies, cakes and sweet breads; pies; refrigerator cakes; frozen desserts; and spoon sweets. Traditionally, spoon sweets refer to honeyed preserves served on a spoon. Yet Segan goes beyond this definition to include such treasures as Sicilian watermelon pudding, ricotta sundae and the velvety yet crisp coffee on a fork.
The creativity doesn’t end with spoons sweets. In the following chapter, “Weird and Wonderful, Unique and Unusual Desserts,” Segan highlights such inventive and toothsome gems as sweet chickpea baked ravioli, chocolate eggplant and pasta cake. Of the 11 desserts featured in this section, I am particularly smitten with the delicate mounds of pan-fried angel hair pasta known as Sicilian pasta crisps. Drizzled with orange-infused honey and then dusted with ground cinnamon and pistachios, these crisps are a snap to make and a joy to eat.
Holiday recipes from ‘Dolci’
Equally pleasurable are the offerings in the “Holiday Tradition” chapter. Once again, pasta makes a memorable appearance, this time in honey-drenched roses and the chocolaty Christmas walnut macaroni. Thanks to these inspiring treats, I no longer relegate pasta to savory dishes. Instead I do as cooks in Piedmont do — slather my vermicelli with creamy gianduia and present it as a surprising and sumptuous last course.
“Dolci” winds down its culinary trek with after-dinner drinks. Here Segan delves into homemade liqueurs such as cherry red alchermes and tart limoncello. She also explores such non-alcoholic beverages as hot chocolate and caffe shakerato — espresso sweetened, tumbled in a cocktail shaker and poured into chilled glasses. Glossaries on espresso, dessert wine and liqueur types are also provided.
The 10th and final chapter returns to essential ingredients. It features recipes for such fundamental dessert components as pie crust, sponge cake and pastry cream. Additionally, it covers jams, marmalade and candied orange peel. No need to waste time rummaging through gourmet shops searching for preserves or candied fruit. You can make these ingredients at home with minimal time or effort.
Recipes direct from Italy
The recipes in “Dolci” are unquestionably authentic. They originate not with New York-based Segan but with home bakers, pastry chefs, commercial producers and food writers throughout Italy. For each dish, Segan notes the region from which it came, for example sweet ricotta crepes from Puglia and “ugly but delicious” cookies, which are a specialty of Piedmont but are found throughout northern Italy. She likewise attributes the sweets to the locals who crafted or aided her in creating them.
Whether you adore travel and sweet treats or merely crave a new way to cap off your evening meal, take a peek at “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” This comprehensive and clever cookbook is bound to inspire you.
Top photo composite:
Author Francine Segan. Credit: Daniela Stallinger; cover of “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” courtesy of the publisher