Articles in Tradition

Almonds, pine nuts and pistachios are coated with sugar to make Italian confetti. Credit: Francine Segan

Italians sure like to sugarcoat things. They’ve got a sugarcoated something or other for almost every occasion.

Almonds are covered in a different color of sugar depending on the occasion — white for weddings, green for engagements, silver for 25th anniversaries, blue or pink for christenings and red for graduations.

Pistachios and pine nuts are traditional favorites, too, added to party favors or flower and fruit baskets. Cacao and coffee beans  have been sugarcoated since the time they were introduced into Italy in the 16th century.

Less well known, however, are Italy’s many sugarcoated spices and herbs.

Italian confetti

In Italy, these tiny treats are served after dinner, as palate cleansers, and are also used to decorate certain desserts.

Called confetti in Italy (dragées in France, comfits in England), these sweets are made by sugar panning, a technique that adds a sugar coating, layer by layer. (Panning is also the same method used by the pharmaceutical industry to coat pills. With a slight change in manufacture and sugar composition, it is also the technique for making jellybeans.)

Confetti are made in a panning machine, a device that looks like a cement mixer. A panning machine is a wide-mouthed copper or stainless steel vessel with a diameter that ranges from 3 to 5 feet. The panning machine is mounted at an angle on a shaft and rotates over a low open flame. Sugar syrup is then slowly added to whatever is to be coated, either with a funnel suspended over the pan, or by hand by ladlefuls. As the sweets bounce about in the pan, the sugar spreads and crystallizes in a thin, hard layer. Only a little sugar is added at a time, so the sugar clings closely to the original object’s shape and contours. Sugarcoated fennel and rosemary stay oblong and the coriander and juniper berries retain their round shape.

For a smooth candy coating, sugar syrup is added by hand in small ladlefuls every half-hour or so. When the sugar syrup is added drop by drop from a suspended funnel, a lovely jagged texture is created.

Romanengo, a Genoa confectionary icon since 1780, creates, among its many artisinal sweets, an impossibly delicate cinnamon confetti. Giovanni Battista Romanego, one of the current generation’s five Romanengo brothers, personally hand-snips Ceylon cinnamon bark into thin wisps, then slowly coats them in sugar syrup, drop by drop, over the course of two days. Unlike Romanengo’s sugarcoated fennel or anise seeds, which have a smooth, shiny coating, the cinnamon has a wonderfully magical appearance that looks like tiny storybook-perfect snowflakes.

Stratta, a Turin confectionery shop since 1836, sells traditional Italian sugarcoated fennel seeds, which are given as gifts to new mothers (thought to help with nursing) or at christenings. Stratta’s owner, Adriana Monzeglio, a spice aficionado, has added several exotic new entries, including cardamom, cumin, coriander and rye, to their list of more conventional confetti. One of Stratta’s best-selling innovations is rosemary confetti, with each tiny leaf encased in a delicate green-tinted sugar.

Confetti are used to top struffoli, a Christmas dessert.

Struffoli: Neapolitan Honey Treats (Struffoli in Cestino di Croccante)

From “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets”

Struffoli, traditional Italian Christmas treats, are marble-sized fried dough balls dipped in honey, piled into a mound and topped with colored sugar and candied fruit. They can be fried or baked and make a festive centerpiece just as they are, heaped onto a serving plate or, as ambitious home cooks in Naples do, served in an edible candy dish. Both the candy dish and the stuffoli are fun and easy to make.

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: 40 minutes

Total time: 60 minutes

Yield: 10 to 12 servings

Ingredients

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more as needed

5 tablespoons granulated sugar, divided

1 1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

6 large eggs, separated

4 tablespoons butter, melted

3 tablespoons Cointreau or Limoncello

1 tablespoon vanilla

Zest of 2 lemons

Zest of 1 orange

Sunflower or other vegetable oil for frying

8 ounces honey, about 1 cup

For optional garnish: confetti — tiny, colored, sugarcoated spices — candied cherries, etc.

Directions

1. In a large bowl and using an electric mixer, combine the flour, 3 tablespoons of the sugar, baking soda, salt, 4 whole eggs, 2 yolks, butter, Cointreau, vanilla and the zests until a dough forms.

2. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.

3. Take a small handful of the dough and roll it into a breadstick shape about 3/4 inches in diameter.

4. Cut the dough into hazelnut-sized sections about 1/2 inch thick and then either bake or fry them. (See below for baking instructions.) For frying, fill in a high-sided saucepan with 3 inches of oil and heat over medium-high flame. They will puff up and turn a lovely golden color within seconds. Remove them from the skillet and place them onto a paper towel-lined plate.

5. Repeat with the remaining dough.

6. In a small saucepan combine the honey and the remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar and then heat until runny. Remove from the heat and stir in the fried balls, one small batch at a time, until they are well coated in the honey mixture. Using a slotted spoon remove the coated balls and arrange them in a circle in a shallow bowl. Repeat with the remaining dough balls, adding them to form a tall mound. Pour any remaining honey over the top and decorate with a scattering of colored sugar balls, confetti and candied fruit.

Best if served within 24 hours of making them. The dessert is placed in the center of the table and guests help themselves with their fingers.

Note: If you prefer, you can bake the dough balls. Place the hazelnut-sized dough segments about an inch apart on a well-greased baking sheet and bake at 400 F for about 7 minutes. Turn the balls and bake on the other side for another 6 to 7 minutes or until light golden. They will not be as round or as nicely golden as the fried version, but the taste will be just as stupendous. You may like to try baking half the dough and frying half, giving your struffoli color gradations.

Edible candy dish

Don’t panic, this isn’t hard to do. The candy dish is really just a big blob of almond brittle.

Ingredients

Vegetable or olive oil

1/4 cup corn syrup

2 1/4 cups sugar

2 cups, 7 ounces sliced almonds

Directions

1. Lightly oil a large nonstick cookie sheet. Lightly oil the inside of a large pie pan, shallow bowl or mold.

2. Heat the corn syrup in a heavy bottom saucepan over medium-high heat until warm, then stir in the sugar. At first the sugar just sort of sits there, but it will start to become translucent in about 3 or 4 minutes then turn ivory colored for another 3 minutes or so, and then finally darken and become liquidy.

3. Continue cooking the mixture, stirring occasionally with an oil-coated wooden spoon, until it becomes a rich golden color, about 12 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the almonds.

4. Carefully, as the sugar is scorching hot, pour the mixture onto the prepared cookie sheet. Using a rolling pin, gently flatten the mixture and roll it out into a large thin circle, at least 13 inches in diameter. Once it has cooled a little and seems firm, transfer it into the prepared mold.

5. Remove from the mold once it’s completely cool and hardened.

Main photo: Almonds, pine nuts, pistachios, fennel and other herb seeds are coated with sugar to make Italian confetti. Credit: Francine Segan

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Black cake. Credit: Ramin Ganeshram

It would arrive each year by the first week of December: a brown paper parcel from Tobago, where my father’s favorite niece lived. Inside was a used butter cookie tin, and inside that was a foil-wrapped cake that revealed itself to be dark as night.

The alcohol fumes that wafted off the cake as it was unwrapped were enough to make our young heads spin — and to preserve it for what was, in those days, a three-week journey by ship from Trinidad & Tobago to New York City. For weeks after the cake arrived, my brother Ramesh and I would scurry into the kitchen and pick at it when my father wasn’t looking.

This Caribbean holiday specialty, which is called Black Cake because of its signature color, Christmas Cake or simply “fruit cake,” is a fruit cake that will actually leave you hankering for more. Plummy, boozy and sweet but not sugary, Black Cake is best described as plum pudding that has gone to heaven.

This cake is so addictive that once you’ve tried it, seeking it come December is an obsession for some. I’ve been bribed with everything from hand-knit scarves, theater tickets, offers of baby-sitting, and even house-cleaning for one.

Black Cake inspired by an Irish Christmas recipe

Most common in English-Caribbean islands like Trinidad, Barbados and Grenada, its origins are in the Irish Christmas Cake, an equally worthy fruitcake cousin. Primarily consisting of raisins, prunes and currants, Black Cake contains only a small amount of the multi-hued candied peel that makes most fruit cakes less than appetizing. To add flavor and moisture, the fruits are soaked in a rum and cherry wine mixture for weeks.

For those of us who have a black-cake-making heritage, this fruit cake is serious business. Those who are really old school start soaking the fruits a full year ahead of time, although I have developed a “fast-soak” method, which means you can have your cake and eat it, too, all in time for the holiday season.

Every family has its own recipe with either a unique mixture of fruits, ratio of liquors or even combination of liquors. Lately, I’ve been using Manischewitz Cherry Wine because I find it has the same sweetness as Caribbean versions of cherry wine but with a lot more color and body.

If you hate fruitcake but love cakes that are densely rich, complex in flavor without being too sweet and ideal with a cup of tea, give Black Cake a try. You might find yourself breaking it out not just at Christmastime, but as we do — for weddings and special occasions of all sorts — because any excuse to eat this fruitcake will do.

This video gives a demonstration for making this cake, with the recipe below.

Black Cake

This recipe is adapted from “Sweet Hands: Island Cooking from Trinidad & Tobago” by Ramin Ganeshram. It features a “fast-soak” method that uses heat to start the maceration process for the dried fruits that make up the cake.

Ingredients

For the fruit mixture:

1 pound raisins

1 pound currants

1 pound prunes

1/2 pound candied cherries

1/4 pound mixed fruit peel

4 cups cherry brandy or cherry wine, divided

4 cups dark rum

1 cinnamon stick

2 star anise pods

1/2 vanilla bean

For the cake:

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg

1/8 teaspoon ground allspice

1 cup dark brown sugar

2 sticks (1 cup) butter, softened

6 eggs

1/2 teaspoon mixed essence (available in Caribbean markets)

1 tablespoon burnt sugar syrup (see note)

For the basting:

1/4 cup dark rum

1/4 cup cherry brandy

2 tablespoons sherry

1 dash Angostura bitters

Directions

For the fruit mixture:

1. For the fruit mixture, mix together all the dried fruits then place half the mixture in a food processor along with 1/2 cup of the cherry brandy. Pulse until the mixture is a rough paste, then place it in a large, deep saucepan or stockpot. Pulse the remaining fruits with another 1/2 cup of cherry brandy to form a rough paste, then add that to the pot as well.

2. Pour the remaining cherry brandy and rum into the pot with the pureed fruit. Add the cinnamon stick and star anise pods. Split the vanilla bean, scrape out the seeds and add both the seeds and the bean to the pan.

3. Place the pan over medium-low heat and mix well until just under a boil. Stir often so it does not scorch on the bottom.

4. Remove the pan from heat, cover it and allow the mixture to sit for one or two hours or as long as overnight. Alternatively, place fruit and spices in an airtight gallon jar and store unrefrigerated in a cool, dark place for at least three weeks or as long as a year.

For the cake:

1. Preheat the oven to 250 F and grease two 8-by-3-inch cake pans, then set them aside.

2. Sift together the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice.

3. Place the sugar and butter in a bowl and cream with an electric mixer until fluffy (about 4 minutes).

4. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.

5. Add the mixed essence.

6. Using a slotted spoon, remove 3 cups of the fruit from its storage jar and beat well into the butter mixture.

7. Add the flour mixture 1/2 cup at a time, beating well after each addition, then add the burnt sugar syrup and mix well.

8. Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans and bake for 90 minutes or until a cake tester inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean. Remove cakes from the oven and cool in their pans for 20 minutes.

9. Combine the rum, brand, sherry and bitters for basting and brush evenly over the cakes. Allow the cakes to cool completely, then remove them from the pans and wrap tightly in plastic wrap or in a zip-top bag.

10. Store in a cool, dry place for at least three days before eating. The recipe makes two cakes, which can be refrigerated for up to three months. If doing so, re-baste with the rum mixture once a week.

Note: Burnt sugar syrup or “browning” is found in Caribbean markets or online. You can also make it by combining 2 tablespoons of dark brown sugar and 1 tablespoon of water in a dry frying pan over medium-low heat. Heat slowly, stirring the sugar until it starts to caramelize. Continue stirring until the sugar syrup turns very dark brown or almost black. Add to batter as called for in a recipe.

Main photo: Black Cake is often simply called “fruit cake” or Christmas Cake in the English-speaking Caribbean. Credit: Ramin Ganeshram

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Strings of dried peppers, eggplant, okra and other vegetables for sale in a market in Gaziantep, Turkey. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

Travel throughout southeastern Turkey in the height of summer and you’re likely to see rooftops, courtyards and gardens blanketed with color — row after row of peppers, eggplant and other vegetables drying in the sun.

Later rehydrated to be stuffed or stewed, dried vegetables are an essential ingredient in the traditional Turkish kitchen, but one that can be difficult to replicate for urban dwellers without a balcony or even a sunny window to call their own.

How to reconnect residents of Turkey’s large cities with the rich culinary culture of their rural roots is just one of the questions being posed by a new Istanbul-based group seeking to re-envision and rebrand Turkish cuisine, in much the same way as the New Nordic culinary movement has both celebrated and changed Scandinavian cooking.

“There are great raw materials in Anatolia and we’re eager to bring them to Istanbul and use them,” says Engin Önder, a cofounder of Gastronomika. (“Anatolia” refers to the westernmost part of Asia that comprises the majority of the land within Turkey’s borders.) This loose collective of young chefs, designers, historians and other interested parties has come together over the past year to operate an experimental kitchen and carry out various culinary research and design projects.

Gastronomika’s “Hacking the Modern Kitchen” exhibit at the Istanbul Design Biennial. Credit: İKSV/Ali Guler

Gastronomika’s “Hacking the Modern Kitchen” exhibit at the Istanbul Design Biennial. Credit: İKSV/Ali Guler

Önder describes one of these projects, “Hacking the Modern Kitchen,” as an effort to “find solutions for applying traditional techniques in small urban kitchens.” Its first “hack,” currently being exhibited as part of the 2nd Istanbul Design Biennial, is an ingeniously simple, space-saving system for drying herbs: paper cones hung with string from an ordinary household curtain or radiator. The cones shield the herbs from direct sunlight to best preserve their color and scent while they soak up the heat needed to dry them, explains a broadsheet printed with instructions and lines for folding the pamphlet itself into one of these paper “herbsacks.”

Confronting an urban revolution

The challenge of reacquainting young, urban people with skills like drying, canning, pickling and even growing their own food is not unique to Istanbul, of course. But it is perhaps particularly difficult, and important, in a country that has seen its urban population swell from 25% of the total in 1950 to 75% today. During that time, Istanbul alone has grown from 1 million residents to about 15 million, squeezing out urban gardens and other green space.

Gastronomika’s team faces the additional hurdle of getting people to rethink a food culture that, although rich with centuries of history and intermingled influences, has often been taken for granted by young Turks and misperceived internationally as amounting to little more than kebabs and baklava.

Istanbul is experiencing something of a renaissance of interest in Anatolian culinary heritage, with chefs like Musa Dağdeviren of the popular Çiya and Mehmet Gürs of the top-ranked Mikla scouring the countryside for local ingredients and traditional tastes to be incorporated into their menus. Though Gastronomika is in many ways part of this trend, it stands apart as a noncommercial, collaborative endeavor.

“Our kitchen is an experimental one and a community one,” Önder says. “It’s not about opening restaurants or creating menus, and no money changes hands.”

Members of the all-volunteer team keep busy with research trips around Anatolia (to “meet producers, learn techniques, talk to grandmothers,” Önder says). Talks and cooking events focus on the distinctive cuisines of Turkey’s Black Sea, southeast and other regions, and include in-depth, weeks-long explorations of single topics such as the vast array of ways to cook pilav (rice). They visit farmers markets in Istanbul and track what’s in season, and tend a gardening plot and organize mushroom-hunting expeditions on the edges of the city, where bits of open space can still be found amid the concrete.

Serving up a dish of stuffed vegetables over lamb ribs to an eager crowd at the Gastronomika kitchen.

Serving up a dish of stuffed vegetables over lamb ribs to an eager crowd at the Gastronomika kitchen hosted by SALT Beyoğlu. Credit: Gastronomika

Though the initiative is deeply rooted in Turkish terroir, its founders take a global approach to their mission. Turkish food needs ambassadors like those in Spain, says chef Semi Hakim, another Gastronomika cofounder, describing a program in which “Spanish chefs are sent abroad by their government to promote Spanish food, so tapas bars can become as ubiquitous as pizza places.”

Other international influences on the team members’ work include the investigative approach of the Nordic Food Lab, to which they’ve reached out for mentorship and advice; and star chef Ferran Adrià’s ambitious Bullipedia project, a Wikipedia-style culinary encyclopedia. Gastronomika’s own take on this concept is its online “karatahta” (blackboard), a digital archive of recipes gathered, techniques tried and ingredients sourced.

Like everything else Gastronomika does, the archive is participatory and open source, Önder explains.

“We share our notes, our presentations, our photos, our sources — all the knowledge we have,” he says. “The main thing is for everything to be public, even our failures. Experimentation always involves failures.”

The project’s members are “shamelessly energetic and fast learners,” says Vasıf Kortun, director of research and programs at SALT, a cultural institution in central Istanbul that hosts Gastronomika’s experimental kitchen in lieu of a traditional, profit-making museum cafe.

“The needs of Turkey’s research and food culture can’t be solved by one group, but if Gastronomika can tie into the bigger picture, they can be a big part of the conversation that’s beginning now,” Kortun says.

Main photo: Strings of dried peppers, eggplant, okra and other vegetables for sale in a market in Gaziantep, Turkey. Credit: Jennifer Hattam

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Instant chocolate cake. Credit: From “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

Savoiardi cookies — often called ladyfingers in the United States — were created in the Piedmont region of Italy in 1348 during the early Renaissance for the royal Savoia family, which gives the cookie its name. Savoiardi recipes are cited in several historic Italian cookbooks, including Bartolomeo Stefani’s 1662 book “The Art of Good Cooking.” This cookie is so important to Italians that the recipe is regulated and the name protected.

For me — probably you, too, since you’re reading this — Italy’s food traditions are precious. Certain products and recipes are so definitively Italian that their origins and even names are worth protecting and preserving. When it comes to Italy’s sweets, there is a national organization, the Association of Italian Sweets and Pasta Manufacturers (Associazione delle Industrie del Dolce e della Pasta Italiane), whose job it is to do just that. The group, founded in 1967, set forth regulations that cover the processes and ingredients permitted for various types of sweets. Their standards, it turns out, are some of the world’s strictest.

For example, to qualify as authentic, savoiardi, the famous Italian cookie, must follow a definitive checklist in accordance with its DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta) status. Ingredients must be region-specific and only the best butter — and a guaranteed amount of it — may be used. There are required quantities of eggs and acceptable flours. The demands are almost painfully rigorous, but the results are exquisite!

Traditionally, savoiardi are dipped in hot chocolate or coffee. Because Italian-made savoiardi soak up liquid so nicely, they are a key ingredient in hundreds of desserts, including charlottes and puddings and, of course, tiramisu.

“Instant” Chocolate Cake

From “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

A no-bake dessert that’s a snap to make and quite pretty. Store-bought savoiardi are dipped in liqueur, layered with chocolate sauce and then refrigerated until firm. It slices just like pound cake.

Prep time: 15 minutes

No cooking, but requires 1 hour to chill

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

3 1/2 ounces, 7 tablespoons, unsalted butter, softened

1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar

1 egg yolk

3 1/2 ounces dark chocolate, 70% cocoa or higher

2 tablespoons heavy cream

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 tablespoons granulated sugar, plus more to taste

1/4 cup sweet liqueur, such as Alchermes or rum

12 savoiardi, Italian ladyfingers

2 tablespoons crushed pistachios or hazelnuts

Directions

1. In a bowl, using a whisk or electric hand mixer, beat the butter, confectioners’ sugar and egg yolk until very smooth and creamy.

2. In another bowl, melt the chocolate and cream, in the microwave or over a double boiler. Stir the chocolate and vanilla into the butter mixture. Reserve.

3. Combine 1/4 cup warm water and granulated sugar in a shallow bowl and stir until the sugar dissolves. Stir in the liqueur and add more sugar, if you like.

4. Dip four savoiardi, one at a time, into the liquid. Arrange the four liqueur-dipped savoiardi in a row, close together, on a serving plate. Spread with 1/3 of the chocolate mixture.

5. Repeat, dip four more savoiardi into the liquid, place them on top of the first row. Spread with 1/3 of the chocolate mixture. Repeat for the third and final layer, spreading the remaining chocolate on top and along the sides of the stacked savoiardi. Sprinkle the top layer with pistachios or hazelnuts. Refrigerate an hour or until firm. Serve cold.

updated tiramisu

This tiramisu is a perfect make-ahead dessert that you can serve in mini portions in espresso cups. Credit: From “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

Updated Tiramisu

Tiramisu is traditionally made with raw eggs. Not only is this tiramisu just as delicious as the traditional version, but here, because the eggs are whipped with hot sugar syrup, there’s no raw eggs to worry about. It also makes the custard stay light and fluffy for up to two days in the fridge.

A perfect make-ahead dessert that you can serve in mini portions in espresso cups, or as a normal-sized portion in a coffee cup.

Prep time: 25 minutes

No cooking time

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

5 large egg yolks

1/2 cup granulated sugar

8 ounces mascarpone cheese

1/4 cup heavy cream

12 savoiardi, plus more for garnish

1 cup freshly brewed espresso or coffee, either decaf or regular

Rum, optional

Cocoa powder

Directions

1. Put the yolks into the bowl of a standing mixer and whisk, using the highest setting, until light yellow and fluffy, at least 5 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, heat the sugar and 2 ounces of water in a small saucepan until it bubbles and reaches 250 F on a candy thermometer.

3. While the standing mixer is still running on its highest setting, slowly pour the hot sugar syrup into the yolks, and continue whisking for 15 minutes. It’s important to whisk them for this long so that the mixture stays fluffy when you add the next ingredients.

4. Add the mascarpone and heavy cream and beat on a medium setting just until combined, about 20 seconds. You can reserve this custard, covered with plastic wrap, in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.

5. To assemble: Brew the espresso or coffee (you’ll need 1 cup if you’re making all at the same time, or just a shot each if making only a few). Break one savoiardo into each espresso cup, or two, into each coffee mug or dessert bowl. Pour the espresso over the savoiardi so they are fully moistened, and if you like, add a splash of rum. Top with a generous dollop or two of mascarpone cream. Dust with cocoa powder. Serve immediately.

Note: For a two-tone effect, dust half the surface of the tiramisu with cocoa powder and the other half with savoiardi crumbs.

Fruity Tiramisu (Zuppa Tartara)

Beautiful and takes just seconds to assemble using supermarket ingredients.

Savoiardi  layered with your favorite flavor jam and sweetened ricotta. The whole thing firms up so nicely, you can slice it like pound cake, creating an effortless, virtually instant, no-bake cake.

This dessert is so light and easy to make that it might be surprising to learn that the recipe comes from an 1890s cookbook, the famed “Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well,” by Pellegrino Artusi.

Prep time: 10 minutes

No cooking, but requires 1 hour to chill

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

8 ounces ricotta cheese

2 teaspoons sugar

Pinch ground cinnamon

1/3 cup your favorite jam, plus more as needed

2 tablespoons sweet liqueur or rum

12 savoiardi

Directions

1. Combine the ricotta, sugar and cinnamon in a bowl, and beat with a fork until smooth. Reserve.

2. In a shallow bowl combine the jam with 1/4 cup warm water and the liqueur or rum. Dip the savoiardi, a few at a time, into the mixture until they are nicely moistened. Place four onto a serving plate, side by side, and spoon 1/2 of the ricotta mixture over them. Top the ricotta with small dollops of extra preserves. Repeat. Finish with final layer of dipped savoiardi and a final drizzle of preserves, or any of the remaining preserves liquid and bits.

3. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least hour, until set. Serve cold.

Main photo: Store-bought ladyfingers are dipped in liqueur, layered with chocolate sauce and then refrigerated until firm in this “instant” chocolate cake. Credit: From “Dolci: Italy’s Sweets” by Francine Segan (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

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Lunch from Tsukushi in Otaru, Japan. Credit: Evelyn Iritani

As a visitor, I’ve always been alternatively intrigued and frustrated by Japan’s food culture.

Intrigued because I know that behind almost every shoji door or noren divider there is probably a mouth-watering surprise of some sort.

Frustrated because my inability to speak or read the language — despite several years of college courses and patient tutors– leaves me unable to know exactly what I am walking into. I peek through what appear to be restaurant doorways and wonder: Can I afford what’s producing these stomach-rumbling aromas, and exactly what will I get?

So when a retired businessman offered to take me to his favorite spot for lunch during a recent visit to Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, I was thrilled. There is nothing better than sharing a local’s “everyday” fare.

I was not disappointed.

East meets West in Otaru, Japan

Otaru, a picturesque port town a half-hour train ride from Sapporo, the island’s capital, was built on the fortunes of fishermen and traders. Wrapped around Ishikari Bay, the city features a “Venice of the Far East” canal lined with old warehouses.

A short walk away is Sakaimichi Street, a historic shopping area whose 19th-century western-style buildings, once home for banks and trading companies, are now filled with trendy shops selling Hokkaido glassware and seaweed candy.

Otaru’s civic leaders are passionate about preserving history, and within a few blocks of the port there are museums devoted to the city’s history, the railway system, the Bank of Japan, Venetian art, music boxes and even literature.

Tsukushi is tucked away on a side street and just around the corner from the Literary Museum, where you can learn more about novelist Sei Ito, who was one of Otaru’s most famous residents. If a filmmaker was trying to cast an authentic Japanese seafood experience, this tiny restaurant looks the part.

Behind its sliding doors, Tsukushi boasts a three-sided bar built around a stone robata-yaki grill. Dried salmon and flatfish dangle from hooks on the ceiling and ceramic shochu jars line the bar. Five hundred yen ($4.25 U.S., according to a recent exchange rate) will buy a shot of the shochu, a potent Japanese liquor. Fluttering paper banners advertise the daily fare in bold brush strokes: seafood, seafood and more seafood.

We arrived shortly after the restaurant opened at 11:30 a.m., and the 11 stools filled rapidly with salarymen and women, utility workers and young female tourists. Linger too long and you’ll be asked to leave — politely of course. This is Japan, after all.

otaru1

otaru1
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An artist along the canal in Otaru, Japan. Credit: Evelyn Iritani

It was nearly a decade ago that Katsuhiko Kawanishi decided to go out on his own after cooking for more than a decade at other people’s hot stoves. The Hokkaido native named his restaurant Tsukushi after the horsetail plants whose green shoots mark the end of Hokkaido’s long winter.

Kawanishi starts his day early, meeting with one of the three or four main fish brokers who serve Otaru or visiting one of the local markets where fishermen bring in their daily catch. During my visit in early fall, the hakkaku, or sail-fin poacher, was in season. This unusual fish, whose large dorsal fin gives it the appearance of an eight-sided prehistoric monster, is a Hokkaido specialty and is eaten grilled or raw.

Unfortunately, there was no hakkaku on the menu the day I dropped in. But I still had more than a dozen different versions of donburi to pick from. Donburi, which means rice bowl, is a form of Japanese comfort food.

At Tsukushi, the donburi was covered with different types of sashimi, or raw fish, topped in turn with a sprinkle of salty dried seaweed called nori. For 500 yen ($4.25 U.S.), I was served a bowl of noodle soup, salty pickled vegetables and a bowl of steaming hot rice covered with thin slices of maguro tuna, squid and tobiko, delicate flying fish eggs. I chose the cheapest offering, but there were 15 kinds of donburi topped with everything from scallop and salmon eggs or crab, squid and salmon to sea urchin.

I returned the next day at lunch to try Tsukushi’s teishoku meal set, which included a piece of grilled fish accompanied by a bowl of rice, noodle soup, sashimi and pickled vegetables. For 630 yen ($5.35 U.S.), you could try one of seven varieties of grilled fish, including hokke (atka mackerel), sanma (saury pike) grilled with salt, or salmon collar.

In the evenings, Tsukushi becomes a robata-yaki restaurant, serving all kinds of grilled meats and seafood with beer and sake. Arrive before 6:30 p.m. and you can get a special meal set for 1,300 yen ($11.04 U.S.) that includes two drinks (beer or sake), sashimi, yakitori and pickles. And don’t tip the chef or waiter. That custom has still not caught on in Japan.

Unfortunately, I ran out of time long before I reached the end of the menu. But a couple visits to Tsukushi convinced me it is possible to eat very well on a budget in Japan with the right introduction. If you go, tell Kawanishi-san I sent you.

Main image: Lunch from Tsukushi in Otaru, Japan. Credit: Evelyn Iritani

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Candied yams with pecans is a Thanksgiving specialty in Tami Weiser's family. Credit: Tami Weiser

“I need white people lunch!” demands young Eddie Huang, played by Hudson Yang, in a trailer for the forthcoming ABC TV show “Fresh Off the Boat.”

The show is comically and more-than-loosely based on Huang’s life as a first-generation Chinese-American growing up in Orlando, Fla.

Young Eddie’s sentiment rings true for me, particularly around this time of year as we all scurry to get Thanksgiving meals in place. For me, growing up as the first-generation child of Trinidadian and Iranian immigrants, Thanksgiving was a chance to be “truly American.” But it was also a battle between me and parents, whom I wanted to serve only “white people’s food.” Not curried chicken or gormeh sabzi (herbed stew with kidney beans), just turkey, stuffing, gravy and potatoes — that’s it.

They ignored me, preferring instead to mark the holiday with special-occasion dishes from their own cultures alongside turkey and the trimmings.

At the time, I was too embarrassed to talk about it with my peers, but now, many years later, we compare notes. My high school friend Terence Weston told me that his own Caribbean family made Callalloo, a thick, green soup, on Thanksgiving. And in place of a turkey, his family would have molded tofu or bread because they were Seventh-Day Adventists who observed a vegetarian tradition. Over at the DeFazio house, my playmates Theresa, Anthony and Mark enjoyed lasagna and antipasto before the turkey came out, which was OK to my young mind, because Italian food was “really American.”

Melding Thanksgiving meals and American values

Brandeis University professor Ruth Nemzoff, an expert in family dynamics and author of “Don’t Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws Into Family” (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2012), once asked students to describe their Thanksgiving dinner in an attempt to highlight gender roles in the preparation of a ceremonial meal.

“Instead the students returned papers which described how each family put their ethnicity into the holiday,” she said. “The hors d’oeuvres were spring rolls, ravioli, or knishes, depending on ethnicity. Surrounding the turkey were remnants of the family’s past — a great metaphor for core American values.”

In some immigrant families, no turkey was in evidence whatsoever, although the day was marked with a celebratory meal. Amy Dalal’s family came to the U.S. from Mumbai, India, in 1974 as strictly vegetarian Hindus.

“We never had turkey,” she said. “My mother usually made some special food, but it would vary from year to year. It might be dosa or matter paneer, a vegetable dish with homemade fresh cheese.”

Dalal’s mother’s nod to American custom is her own fresh cranberry sauce, which the family smears on theplas, a spicy Guajarati flat bread with fenugreek.

On the other hand, Becky Sun’s family emigrated from Taiwan in 1976, and they did try to replicate the American Thanksgiving in the small towns in which they lived.

“Like all the other families, we had baked sweet potatoes in a casserole, topped with mini marshmallows and frosted cornflakes,” Sun said. “[My mother] also was — and still is — a fan of Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup, with which she makes green bean casserole with the French’s onion sprinkles.”

Still, the one thing conspicuously absent from the Sun clan’s Midwestern feast was the turkey. Instead, her mom cooked roast duck, and because bread stuffing seemed odd to her, she substituted sticky rice as a side.

Bearing witness to an immigrant past

As evidenced by these anecdotes, putting a personalized ethnic twist on Thanksgiving is an American tradition nearly as old as Thanksgiving itself. Families whose forebears immigrated to the U.S. far earlier, like Tami Weiser’s Jewish-American family, who came from Russia and Germany to New Orleans 100 years ago, melded “ethnic” foods with American expectations. Tzimmies, a sweet potato and carrot casserole made at Passover, was a logical addition to the holiday table. When her mother took over the feast, she made the offering more modern — and more Southern — by creating a candied yams with pralines. You can get that recipe from The Weiser Kitchen.

Today, children of newer immigrants, like Nadine Nelson, are much more at ease with their multicultural heritage, and I envy them for it. Nelson, whose Jamaican family emigrated to Toronto, Canada, where she was born, moved to New Haven, Conn., when she was 10. Her aunt once tried her hand at turkey and overcooked it. After that Thanksgiving became more of a day for everyone to come together and less about the traditional meal.

A professional cook, Nelson has recently taken over Thanksgiving dinner, with a specific eye to creating a multicultural meal to which the whole family contributes. There is jerk turkey, peas and rice cooked in coconut milk, curry-and-guava-glazed carrots, goat head soup and steamed stuffed fish, all alongside sweet potato casserole, cornbread stuffing and cranberry sauce.

Nelson said the best part of the melded meal is when her aunt insists everyone stand and say what they are thankful for. “It is important for a family to stand witness to that. ”

Keeping Nelson’s words in mind, this year, I, too, will stand witness to my family’s heritage. And even though my parents are long gone, their gormeh sabzi and curried chicken happily will be on my Thanksgiving table.

Nadine Nelson’s Jerk Roasted Turkey

Prep time: 40 minutes

Cook time: About 2 1/2 hours for an unstuffed turkey or 4 hours for a stuffed turkey

Total time: 3 to 5 hours.

Yield: Makes 24 servings.

Ingredients

2 cups wet jerk sauce (such as Walkerswood brand)

1/4 cup dry jerk seasoning (such as Blue Mountain brand)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

10-pound to 12-pound turkey, cleaned and dried

1/2 stick butter, softened

Green seasoning (see recipe below)

Directions

1. Mix together the wet jerk sauce, dry jerk seasoning, salt and pepper in a large bowl, and then rub the jerk sauce evenly over the inside and outside of the turkey.

2. Using your fingers, gently separate the turkey skin from the breast and rub the sauce mixture under the breast skin as well. Use up all the sauce, rubbing it around the turkey.

3. Place the turkey breast side down inside a 2-gallon, heavy-duty sealable oven-proof bag. Squeeze out as much air as possible and seal the bag. Refrigerate and marinate for 24 to 48 hours, turning over every 12 hours.

4. Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Prior to cooking, open the bag and rub the green seasoning (see recipe below) all over the turkey, under the breast skin and inside the cavity.

5. Position the oven rack near the bottom of the oven. If using stuffing, remove the turkey from the baking bag and loosely pack the stuffing in the cavity. Rub the outside of the turkey with the butter.

6. Put the turkey back in oven-proof bag and seal well. Place in a deep roasting pan and cook for 45 minutes, then lower the temperature to 325 degrees F. Continue roasting the turkey until a meat thermometer registers 180 degrees F in breast meat or 185 degrees F in thigh meat. This should take about 2 1/2 hours for an unstuffed turkey or 3 1/2 to 4 hours for a stuffed turkey.

7. Remove turkey from the oven and put it on a warmed platter. Cover loosely with foil and let rest for 30 minutes before carving.

Green Seasoning

Prep time: About 5 minutes

Yield: Makes about 3 cups

Ingredients

Two bunches parsley

3 medium red onions, cut into large chunks

1 bunch thyme

1 bunch scallions, root ends trimmed

1/8 cup paprika

3 tablespoons onion powder

3 tablespoons garlic powder

1 tablespoon ground allspice

1/2 cup lemon juice

1/4 cup olive oil

Directions

1. Place all the ingredients in a food processor and process to a smooth paste, about 1 to 2 minutes.

Parvin Ganeshram’s Gormeh Sabzi (Persian Herb Stew)

Gormeh Sabzi and White Rice is a Persian specialty. Credit: Dreamstime

Gormeh Sabzi and White Rice is a Persian specialty. Credit: Dreamstime

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cook time: 1 1/2 hours

Total time: About two hours

Yield: Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Ingredients

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 medium onion, sliced thinly

2 pounds stew beef or chicken breast, cut into 1-inch pieces

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1 tablespoon turmeric

4 cups water

2 bunches flat parsley, washed well

1 leek, trimmed, washed well and sliced into 1-inch pieces

1 bunch fresh fenugreek, washed well, or ½ cup dried fenugreek leaves

1 limou omani (dried Persian lime, available in Middle Eastern markets) or ½ cup lemon juice

1 12-ounce can dark red kidney beans, drained and rinsed

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

½ teaspoon saffron powder, dissolved in 1/3 cup boiling water

Directions

1. Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat, then add the onion. Fry until the slices begin to soften and become translucent, about 1 to 2 minutes.

2. Season the meat chunks well with salt and pepper to taste and add it to the pot with the onions. Fry until golden brown, about 8 to 10 minutes for beef or 5 to 6 minutes for chicken.

3. Stir in the turmeric and mix well. Allow the mixture to fry for 1 minute more, then add the water.

4. Place the parsley, leek and fenugreek in a food processor and chop to a fine consistency. You may also do this by hand. Add the chopped herbs to the stew, along with the limou omani.

5. Add salt and pepper to taste and lower heat to a simmer and cook until the meat is fork tender, about 1 1/2 hours for beef or 30 minutes for chicken.

6. Stir in the rinsed kidney beans, more salt and pepper is desired and simmer 10 minutes more.

7. Stir in the saffron and simmer 1 to 2 minutes. Serve with rice. (See recipe below.)

Persian White Rice (Chelo)

The secret to the long, fluffy grains of Persian Rice is steaming and a method that “traps” the excess moisture away from the rice as it steams.

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 40 minutes

Total time: 50 minutes

Yield: Makes 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

2 cups high-quality basmati such as Lal Quila

1 tablespoon coarse salt

¼ cup plus 1 tablespoon olive oil, divided

Directions

1. Wash the rice by placing it in a deep bowl and filling it with cold water. Swirl the water around with your hand until it is cloudy. Carefully drain the water. Repeat 4 or 5 times until the water is clear. Set aside.

2. Bring 6 cups of water to a boil in a large, nonstick sauce pot or a large iron pot and add the salt and 1 tablespoon of the oil.

3. Add the rice and simmer on medium-low for 10 to 15 minutes. Drain in a colander.

4. Add 1/4 cup of water to the rice pot and 1 tablespoon of the oil to the rice pot. Swirl it around. Add 1 large spoon of rice into the middle of the pot and add spoonful after spoonful in a mound until all the rice is used.

5. Drizzle the remaining oil over the rice and pour another 1/4 cup of water over it. Use a rubber spatula to smooth the pyramid up into a smooth cone.

6. Place a clean dishtowel or doubled up paper towels over the pot and then squeeze the lid into place. Place over low heat for 30 to 40 minutes.

7. Remove the rice and place it on a platter. To remove the tahdig, or rice crust, take the pot and carefully hold the bottom under cold water. Then use the spatula to loosen the crust. Turn it out onto a platter.

Main photo: Candied yams with pecans is a Thanksgiving specialty in Tami Weiser’s family. Credit: Tami Weiser

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Belgian beekeeper Xavier Rennotte has given mead a makeover with the launch of his Bee Wine. Credit: Xavier Rennotte

In Belgium, beer is the beverage of choice, while mead, an ancient alcoholic drink, is virtually unknown. But a young Belgian beekeeper, Xavier Rennotte, has given mead a makeover with the recent launch of his own brand, Bee Wine.

With roots in historic recipes and “Beowulf,” the real magic behind Bee Wine’s freshly minted flavor comes from Rennotte’s collaboration with a Belgian scientist. Mead is nothing more than honey, water and yeast, although spices and fruit are sometimes added for flavor. It’s not wine, although it tastes like it.

When I first encountered Rennotte some years ago, he had just met Sonia Collin, an expert in brewing and honey at Louvain University. I asked him then why he had turned to science for help. He explained it was his godfather who had made the suggestion: “Learn from the beginning, the scientific way. The best way to understand something is to go deep inside it,” he had told Rennotte.


But why mead? It turned out Rennotte was obsessed with recreating the flavor of his first boyhood taste of mead, known as hydromel (“honey water”) in French. In other words, he was using science to track down a fleeting, Proustian taste from his childhood in the Belgian countryside.

Rennotte’s story lies at the heart of a book I wrote to explore our mostly pleasurable relationship with flavor, and the science behind it. I caught up with him recently at a food festival in the Parc Royal in Brussels. A crowd was gathered in front of his Nectar & Co stand to sample his Bee Wine.

Many people were mystified — was it wine or not? He happily explained its origins, as he offered tastings. Most people were delighted with the flavor. “It makes a great aperitif, or can be used as an ingredient in a cocktail,” Rennotte said. He’s also a trained chef, and loves using it as a marinade for lamb or fish, or as a dessert ingredient. “It’s great in sabayon,” he noted.

People were also sampling about a dozen types of organic honey with different flavors, aromas, textures and colors that Rennotte imports from around Europe for his Bee Honey collection. They include lemon blossom, wild carrot, eucalyptus and coriander. My favorite is the sunflower honey — thick as molasses, butter yellow and delicious on Le Pain Quotidien sourdough bread. One of his best-sellers is a spreadable paste made of just honey and pureed hazelnut. It tastes like Nutella, but with no added sugar or oil.

Rennotte isn’t the only novice alcoholic beverage entrepreneur who has turned to science for help and inspiration. One of the recipes in my book is for sabayon made with Musa Lova, a banana liqueur produced by a Flemish restaurateur. The liqueur is made in collaboration with the director of the largest in vitro banana species collection in the world, at the Laboratory of Tropical Crop Improvement at Leuven University. Musa Lova, a rum-based liqueur that comes in varieties such coffee or local honey, is made with ordinary Cavendish bananas, without added flavoring. Bananas contain a huge number of flavor molecules, which vary slightly depending on the ripeness.

Author Diane Fresquez. Credit: Thibault Cordonnier

“A Taste of Molecules” author Diane Fresquez. Credit: Thibault Cordonnier

Science not only helps alcoholic beverage makers, the producers influence science too. During my research in Copenhagen, for example, I discovered that the pH scale, used in medicine, agriculture and food science, was developed at the Carlsberg brewing company’s laboratory in 1909.

Rennotte’s hydromel is made from organic orange blossom honey from the Mount Etna area of Sicily, organic German yeast and spring water. His meadery, south of Brussels, is a former slaughterhouse that he refurbished with solar panels and a system to reuse the water that cools the fermentation tanks.


The first time I tasted Rennotte’s mead was at his wife’s bakery-patisserie Au Vatel in the European Quarter, where we met often to talk about his search for the perfect mead. The early sample I tasted, which he had poured straight from a plastic lab bottle into a wine glass, was clear, young but tasty. The honey-tinted final product I drank at the food festival was light and sweet with a complex flavor that, one customer noted, develops and changes slightly with every sip.

“I couldn’t have done it without science,” Rennotte said. “I learned how the yeast functions, the importance of the pH of the honey and the temperature of the water — I learned it all from Sonia.”

Rennotte is incredibly proud and happy with his hydromel. But did he manage to capture the flavor he remembered from childhood? “I’m still searching,” he said. “Perhaps I’ll be looking for it for the rest of my life.”

Crumble of Christmas Boudin Sausage With Mead Sauce

Prep time: 15 to 20 minutes (plus chilling)

Yield: Serves 4

Ingredients

For the boudin mixture:

1/3 pound white boudin with pecans

1/4 pound black boudin with raisins

A “knob” of butter (roughly 2 tablespoons)

For the apple compote:

2 cooking apples

1/4 cup water

2 tablespoons sugar

For the mead sauce:

2 cups veal stock

1 1/4 cups mead

Salt and pepper to taste

For the topping:

2 ounces Speculoos (classic Belgian spice cookies)

Directions

1. Prepare the compote the day before or in the morning, so that it can be well chilled before serving. Peel and cut the apples into chunks. Cook the apples in the water on high heat. After 5 minutes, mash the apples, drain off any excess water and add the sugar. Chill.

2. Before serving, remove the skin of the sausages and place the meat in a mixing bowl. Mash the sausage meat with a fork. Cook the sausage meat in the butter in a nonstick pan on high heat. Remove when the meat is browned and keep warm.

3. To create the mead sauce, combine the veal stock and the mead in a saucepan, simmer and reduce. Salt and pepper to taste.

4. Prepare the Speculoos cookies by breaking them into small pieces.

5. When serving use 4 balloon-type wine glasses to layer the ingredients in the following order:

  • 2 tablespoons warm sausage meat
  • 1 tablespoon mead sauce
  • 2 tablespoons cold compote
  • 1 tablespoon crumbled Speculoos cookies

Notes
This is one of Xavier Rennotte’s favorite mead recipes, a starter or amuse-bouche based on boudin (blood sausage) from the southern, Francophone region of Belgium. During Christmastime in Wallonia, butcher shops’ windows are overflowing with boudin made with a variety of ingredients, such as raisins, apples, walnuts, leeks, pumpkin, truffles and Port. Each butcher competes to offer his or her clients a selection of sweet and savory boudin sausage.

Main photo: Belgian beekeeper Xavier Rennotte has given mead a makeover with the  launch of his Bee Wine. Credit: Xavier Rennotte

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Bagna càuda, made with garlic and anchovies, is a dip best served hot. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Di Carroll always knew she wanted to live in Italy. Brought up in Cheshire, North West England, she felt an overwhelming affinity toward all things Italian from an early age, studied Italian at university, and worked as a translator, interpreter and wine merchant. Carroll’s particular love of Piedmont dates from a holiday trip to Turkey she took with her brother while still in her teens: The siblings made friends with a Piedmontese family, who invited them to visit during their journey back to the U.K.

From the start, Carroll says she was captivated with the Piedmont region in northern Italy. “I saw the hills and vines, castles and little villages, and immediately fell in love. We sat under the fig tree in our friend’s garden and they pointed out the ripe, black figs they would pick next morning for breakfast. It’s a memory I’ve always kept — and now I can do the same,” she says.

Carroll and her husband, Pete, moved to Italy 13 years ago. Their old farmhouse in the Basso Monferrato is remote, peaceful and off the “expat” track. It is not a tourist area, but it is within the official Barbera growing area and Pete cultivates a small vineyard for their own consumption.

Regional Piedmont cookbook

Carroll has slowly been compiling a cookbook of regional and local recipes that have been refined through the prism of her own expert cooking skills. As we talked in her farmhouse kitchen in front of a wood-burning stove (“fabulous for roast chicken”), she was excited to show off a bottle of Gambadpernis (Partridge Leg), a lovely new DOC wine made by neighbor Bussi Piero.

“The production is tiny, there are only a few producers. Of course, they’ve been making wine ’round here for generations, although often they would just keep a lot of the grapes, dry them and eat them for Christmas,” she says.

[To earn DOC status (Denomination of Controlled Origin), a wine has to be made from grapes from a particular defined area and pass strict tests for standards in alcohol content, flavor, aroma, color and more. It ensures that the consumer is drinking an authentic wine, not a counterfeit or adulterated one.]

dicarrol

dicarrol
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Di Carroll, who moved to Italy with her husband 13 years ago, fell in love with the Piedmont region as a teen. She has been compiling a cookbook of regional and local recipes that have been refined through the prism of her own expert cookery skills. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

Carroll explained the concept of the congenial merenda sinoira, a gathering of a half-dozen people or more, where everyone gathers to talk and nibble around a farmhouse table laden with salami, ham and cheese, and a pezzo forte, a pasta piece de resistance — usually pasta with butter, sage and Parmesan.

“It’s a lovely ritual, which is why I decided to get a really large table, so when visitors come, that’s where we sit, not in armchairs and sofas,” she says.

Traditional Piedmont dishes

For Carroll, Piedmont is the perfect Italian region. “The continuity of food and life is important here. The Piedmontese have a unique style and outlook on life. They are courteous and respect your boundaries, welcoming and attentive, and they have a way of making you feel you matter.

“They are still very die-hard about eating their traditional dishes and particular about the quality of their ingredients. People still keep rabbits and hens for food,” she says. “In every family vineyard you will still find two or three mixed vines for the table. My butcher’s beef comes from two miles down the road, and he goes to see the animals before they are slaughtered to choose which one he wants. My main problem at first was that they don’t hang the meat here for any length of time. The butcher now matures it for three weeks for me, but I still can’t convince any of my Italian friends to do the same.

“Every house has a copy of The Silver Spoon, but there is still a great oral tradition of handing recipes down. As well as personal variations, many villages also have their own collective recipes, recipes that belong to the village. At the annual fiera (fair), when they open up the wine cellars, each one offers a traditional dish to go with the wine samples,” Carroll says.

Nonetheless, Carroll says she has brought a little bit of Britain to her corner of a foreign field. She is known locally for her occasional afternoon teas for female friends, complete with teapot (unheard of!) and fine bone china. As for her husband, he’s down at the local bar with the lads in the circulo, discussing everyone’s favorite subjects — politics. And football. And what’s for dinner that night.

La Bagna Càuda or Bagna Caoda (Hot dip)*

Prep time: 30 minutes

Total time: 1 hour

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

12 large cloves of garlic in their skins

12 salted anchovies

3 1/2 fluid ounces best-quality, fruity, aromatic olive oil

1 stick of unsalted butter

Black pepper, to taste

Chopped basil, to taste

Directions

1. Set the garlic to cook on a very low heat — between 175 F and 212 F, at the most — in the oven.

2. Meanwhile, melt the salted anchovies in the oil and butter, again on a very low heat, until they become a paste. If you do it on the stove, this part will take no more than 10 minutes.

3. When the garlic is soft and creamy, remove the skins, and mash them into the anchovy mixture. Season with black pepper and a little chopped basil, stir well.

* So called because it should always be served hot. This is usually served as a vegetable dip, with celery sticks, red bell pepper batons, roasted pumpkin pieces, endives, baked onions or raw fennel. Guests are given their bagna càuda in terra-cotta dishes over a tealight, which keeps it warm. It can also be served as a cold dressing on cooked bell peppers that have been cooked over a flame, skinned and arranged on a plate with the bagna càuda as a dressing.

Salsa Rossa

Prep time: 20 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes

Yield: 6 servings

Ingredients

1/2 stick of celery, diced

1/2 onion, chopped finely

2 to 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (Ligurian preferred because of the fragrance and balance it gives to the sauce)

3 anchovy fillets in olive oil, crushed in a mortar

2 ounces fresh red peppers, chopped fine

1/2  fresh chili pepper

7 ounces tomato passata

1 teaspoon sugar

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Red wine, to taste

Red wine vinegar, to taste

Directions

1. Gently fry the celery and onion in the oil.

2. When they start to turn light golden brown, stir in the anchovies, peppers, passata, sugar and black pepper. Add the wine and vinegar in small amounts and taste as you go; stirring spoon in one hand, tasting spoon in the other, until it you find a good sweet-sour-spicy balance of flavors that suit your palate.

3. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for a few minutes.

4. Serve as a condiment, rather than a covering sauce, with cold veal tongue.

Boiled veal tongue: Boil and simmer a fresh tongue in water with a bay leaf, large sprig of rosemary and an onion studded with a couple of cloves. The tongue is best made a day in advance.

Brasato al Barolo (Beef in Barolo)*

Prep time:  1 hour

Total time: 3 to 4 hours, plus overnight

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

4 ounces very thinly sliced lardo (or streaky bacon — not pancetta or lardons)

35 ounces pot roast beef, tied neatly with string

1 ounce unsalted butter

2 to 3 ounces of extra virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

2 to 3 sage leaves

Sprig of rosemary

Bay leaf

2 large cloves of garlic

Salt and pepper, to taste

1 or 2 cloves (the spice, not clove of garlic)

A “whiff” of cinnamon (the spicing has to be delicate)

1 bottle of Barolo or Barbera

Hot beef stock (homemade, preferably)

For the soffritto:

2 onions, chopped

1 carrot, chopped

1 celery stick, chopped

A pinch of ground nutmeg

Directions

1. Cut the lardo into slivers.

2. Make small incisions into the meat and insert a piece of lardo into each one.

3. Fry the beef in butter and oil in a large casserole so it browns evenly on all sides.

4. Add the herbs and garlic to the pan and season with salt and pepper.

5. Add the spices (clove and cinnamon), heat gently for about 20 minutes with the lid halfway on.

6. Remove the meat, and replace any juices that drain from it back in the casserole. Set the meat aside.

7. Add the soffritto to the casserole dish, stir well, taste and add a little more salt. Replace the meat.

8. Add the wine and bring gently to a boil in order to evaporate the alcohol (otherwise it will be bitter).

9. Lower the heat to a simmer and cook for at least 3 hours. Test periodically for “doneness” — when the meat feels very tender, almost falling apart. (You can cook it in the oven, but in Italy it is mostly done on top of the stove).

10. Top with hot stock from time to time, if necessary.

11. When done, remove from the heat and allow the meat to cool in its juices.

12. Several hours before serving, take the meat out and carve into medium-thick slices.

13. Strain the cooking juices and thicken slightly with cornstarch if desired.

14. Reheat the meat, arrange on a silver platter (if you wish to make a fine impression) and pour the sauce over the meat.

Tips for this recipe

  • This recipe needs Piedmont wine as it is most appropriate for the character of the dish, which is traditionally made in a deep, lidded casserole.
  • One of the secrets of success is to add a pinch of salt now and then, rather than in one go. Keep tasting as you go, it’s important to get the right balance of flavors.
  • The traditional accompaniment is potatoes mashed with olive oil and Parmesan, and carrot batons braised in oil and water, and sprinkled with fresh herbs such as sage, parsley and rosemary.

Il Bunet (or Bonet)

A chocolate and amaretti pudding favored throughout Piedmont.

Prep time: 30 minutes

Total time: 90 minutes

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

Ingredients

10 ounces amaretti biscuits

2 rounded tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa powder

17 fluid ounces whole milk

6 eggs, separated

The point of a knife blade of salt

2/3 cup white sugar

2 fluid ounces rum (optional, it was not used in days of yore)

1 cup sugar moistened with 2 tablespoons water for the caramel

One 2-pound rectangular loaf pan

Directions

1. Pulse the amaretti into a fine crumb in the food processor, mix in the cocoa powder, then add the milk.

2. Whip the egg whites into firm peaks with baking soda, taking care not to overbeat. Then whip the egg yolks and sugar into a velvety cream like zabaglione. Fold everything together carefully.

3. Make a caramel mixture by gently heating the sugar and 2 to 3 tablespoons water until the sugar dissolves; coat the bottom and sides of the loaf pan with the caramel mixture.

4. Pour the pudding mixture into the loaf pan and cook in a Bain Marie, or double-boiler bath, for 30 to 45 minutes at 350 F. When the pudding is firm to the touch and has pulled away from the sides of the pan, take it out of the oven, let it cool to room temperature before flipping over onto a serving platter and unmolding.

Hazelnut Cake

Often called La Langarola from the Piedmontese region of Le Langhe, which stretches south between Alba and Cuneo, and is where the renowned sweet round hazelnuts are cultivated.

Prep time: 1 hour

Total time: 2 hours

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Ingredients

For the cake:

5 eggs, separated

The point of a knife blade of baking soda

3/4 cup light brown or granulated sugar

2 tablespoons rice or hazelnut oil (or a light sunflower oil)

2 1/2 cups finely chopped, skinned hazelnuts* or hazelnut flour if you can find it. (Processing the nuts in a food processor is acceptable, provided the result is a fairly fine crumble.)

Cinnamon or vanilla, if you prefer

The point of a knife blade of salt

Lined cake pan

Unsweetened cocoa powder, to dust baked cake

For the hazelnuts:

2 cups boiling water

3 cups baking soda

1 cup of hazelnuts

Bowl of very cold water

Directions

For the cake:

1. Whip the egg whites into peaks with baking soda; put to rest in the refrigerator.

2. Whip the eggs yolks and sugar into a firm mousse that resembles zabaglione, add the rice oil gently; fold in the finely chopped hazelnuts and a pinch of salt. (Many prefer the natural flavors of quality hazelnuts, but you can add a pinch of cinnamon or a little vanilla if you wish.)

3. Carefully fold the whipped egg whites and the egg and nut mixture together.

4. Pour the mix into a lined 9- to 9.5-inch-diameter cake pan, bake at 350 F for at least 45 minutes.

5. Halfway through cooking time, cover cake mix with grease-proof paper to avoid burning.

6. When cooked — a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean — remove from oven and allow to cool in the pan.

7. To serve, dust with a little unsweetened cocoa powder, and offer to your guests with a glass of Moscato Naturale.

For the hazelnuts:

1. Bring the water to a boil in a saucepan.

2. Let water continue to boil, add the baking soda to the water, which will foam.

3. Add the nuts to the boiling mixture and allow to boil for about 3 minutes. The water will turn black.

4. Have a bowl of very cold water handy. Place a nut in the cold water and try to rub off the skin. If it doesn’t come off easily, let the nuts continue to boil for a few minutes longer.

5. Continue to test one nut at a time. When the skin comes off easily, add the rest of the nuts to the cold water and start to peel.

6. Dry the nuts in a warm, but not hot, oven so as not to toast them or dry out the oils.

Main photo: Bagna càuda, made with garlic and anchovies, is a dip best served hot. Credit: Clarissa Hyman

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