Sunday, November 25, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving/Giorno del Ringraziamento!

Clearly, this post is a bit late, but my excuse is that I've been in a tryptophan-induced state of slumber/general daze for literally the past few days. Yes, Thanksgiving did happen in Italy, although it took quite a bit of planning to make it possible. One of my teachers managed to secure a space with a full kitchen where students, teachers, and host families could enjoy Thanksgiving dinner together.

The atmosphere was a bit bleak (i.e.: concrete floors and fluorescent lighting), the weather outside was wet, and the food, while homemade, paled in comparison to most Thanksgiving meals I've had. Given the situation, it was quite good though. All the savory items were prepared by our teacher and her Italian husband, who owned several restaurants years ago. We students made the pumpkin and apple pies (with varying degrees of success).

Regardless of the quality of the food, I think I can rightly say this was one of the best Thanksgiving dinners I've experienced. The fact that my host parents, L&S, attended made all the difference - it was truly like being with family. They even partook in the turkey, potatoes, stuffing, peas, and pie, although I'm not sure they found much of it very appealing.

Perhaps to the dismay of the Italians who attended the dinner, most of the meal was straight-up traditional Thanksgiving food. However, we did enjoy some crostini before the meal and plenty of wine throughout it. Perhaps the most Italian part of the meal, however, was the side dish of Cipolline in agrodolce. In this dish, small, jewel-like onions, bathed in a sweet sauce, are cooked until silky and tender. Their mildly acidic yet sweet flavor makes them the perfect side dish. They contribute moisture to roasted turkey and they add an unexpected textural dimension when piled on top of mashed potatoes, although they stand up wonderfully on their own as well.

I failed to bring my camera to dinner, so I have no photos to share this time around, but I thought I'd post links to a couple recipes for cipolle that I found on the Food & Wine and the Serious Eats sites. Both versions are quite similar and very straightforward, but seeing as how I've never made the dish, I'm afraid I can't recommend one over the other. Use your best judgment!

Food & Wine's recipe for Cipolline in Agrodolce

Mario Batali's take, via Serious Eats

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

An Ode to Pane

Mangio il pane tutti i giorni per la colazione, poi per il pranzo, e poi ancora una volta alla cena. (I eat bread every day for breakfast, then for lunch, and then again at dinner.)

Perché no? (Why not?)

The bread in Italy, while perhaps not as world-famous as French bread, is not only excellent, but also central, I would argue, to the culture. In nearly every neighborhood I've traveled to in Florence in the past three months, I have found a panificio (bakery) or forno (literally, "oven"). Indeed, bread, the sustenance of both the poor and the wealthy, is central to Italian cuisine and an integral part of everyday life in this country.

Lest you think I'm speaking of Italian bread (that wrongly-named, Wonder Bread-esque stuff found in the States), allow me to elaborate. As with most of Italian food, each region has its own specialty when it comes to bread - Liguria has its focaccia, Puglia, pane pugliese, and Tuscany, pane toscano (not to mention schiaciatta, but I'll save that for another post).

Pane toscano's biggest claim to fame (or infamy, depending on your point of view) is that it is unsalted. It is a somewhat dry, dense bread with a pale crust, quite unlike a crisp, airy baguette or a chewy, mildly piquant sourdough boule.

Pane toscano

The first time I ever ate pane toscana was not in Italy but in fact in New York, at a restaurant in Brooklyn called Locanda Vini e Olii. The chef, as I remember reading in Edible Brooklyn, is from Florence. Hence, she serves classic pane toscana with salsa verde, a green sauce which is not at all spicy and made mostly from parsley. While I had an otherwise very pleasant and memorable meal at Locanda, I was thoroughly disappointed by the bread, because it was not what I was expecting. Just over one month later, I arrived in Tuscany, but this time I was prepared for my second encounter with the region's eponymous bread.

Here in Florence, I eat pane toscana every night at dinner (unless we have pizza, as we did tonight, which I will also save for a different post). Granted, it took some getting used to, but I've now come to savor it. The bread's mild yet earthy, slightly sweet flavor is perfect for scooping up errant pieces of pasta and for sopping up the salty sauce and olive oil invariably left behind after I've polished off my primi and secondi.

Pane toscana at dinner (alongside cod in a spicy tomato-olive sauce and broccoli slowly cooked with olive oil and peperoncino)

Lunch, which is a simple affair for me, also usually involves bread. I will admit I sometimes buy a quarter-loaf of crusty, chewy, and pleasingly salty pane pugliese from the local panificio instead of pane toscano, but pane toscano integrale (whole-grain) also makes a very good sandwich.

Pane pugliese with wild boar salami, provolone, and a nearly-perfect tomato

Pane integrale with sharp pecorino and tomatoes

Today, as I munched a truly-Tuscan sandwich of salame toscano and pane toscano, I realized how much I will miss being able to buy high-quality bread once I return to the States at the end of December. When I told my family this tonight at dinner, I joked that they would have to ship me loaves of bread. Then, in all seriousness, I said that the next best thing would be to learn to make it myself. I'll let you know how it goes.

For more reading on Tuscan bread, check out this informative article from the New York Times.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Apple Pie, Italian-style

Apple pie may not be the most logical thing to make while in Italy, but I found myself with a craving for it as soon as a chill came into the air, and the first rosy apples appeared in the market. My host mother, however, insisted that I not turn the oven on as long as it was still slightly warm outside, so I patiently waited until temperatures began to dip into the 40's at night to ask her permission to bake. Finally, last weekend, as I was sitting in my room upstairs, wrapped in a blanket with my hot-water bottle on my lap, I decided it was time.

First, I had to find a pan. As much as I wanted to make apple pie, I knew it would be difficult to find the appropriate pan in Italy, since Italians really don't make pie. (Pie is not particularly pretty, and as I have discovered, Italian desserts are infinitely more elegant in appearance than American ones.) My host family offered their pans, but they were mostly too large or too deep for a pie. Worried, I began to consider other options - an apple crisp, perhaps? Apple cake? Apple tart? Apple galette? Skip the apples and make something else?

However, I decided I might be able to buy a fitting disposable aluminum pan, so I set off on an expedition to the Esselunga supermarket near my house. After wandering the aisles for what seemed like half and hour, I was bewildered, quite ready to give up, and, frankly, looked like a crazy person. At that moment, I caught sight of the aluminum pans, tucked away on top of the meat refrigerator case, and retrieved a set of three 8 or 9-inch pie-esque pans. They would have to do.

Next came the recipe. My sometimes-employer back in New York, food writer Melissa Clark, had sent me her recipe for the perfect all-butter pie crust. I was excited to use it until I realized I would have to double the proportions in order to make a double-crusted pie. As delicious as it sounded, I didn't want to make my host family pay for all that butter, so I opted for a slightly less rich crust, ultimately melding Melissa's recipe with one I found on Epicurious. The recipe for the filling was essentially improvised.

Then came the time to convert my mish-mash of a recipe into metric units. This was not a difficult task, although, as I knew from one summer of converting an entire cookbook for Melissa, it can be tedious. Using this website (, I calculated how much flour, butter, sugar, etc. I would need by using the chart of common baking ingredients toward the bottom of the page. (A simple unit conversion calculator does not work when baking, since a cup of butter and a cup of flour have very different weights.)

Finally, I had to write the list of ingredients in Italian so that my host mother could go to the supermarket to purchase them.

This is how it turned out:

280 g burro, senza sale
315 g farina
100 g zucchero bianco e 50 g zucchero di canna (o solamente 150 g zucchero bianco)
1 limone
1 cucchiaio cannela
un'po del sale
1 chilo delle mele verdi (7 o 8 mele)

Pretty straightforward, right?

After all those obstacles, everything else came together quite nicely. I laid out all my ingredients (except for the apples, which were outside) on the kitchen table, and my host mother came to sit and watch.

She had just made a typically beautiful apple dessert that morning - it was composed of a golden crust topped with pastry cream and rings of thinly sliced apples, all of which were then baked. She found the amount of butter in the pie crust somewhat appalling, and the whole concept of a dessert made of basically plain fruit plus sugarless dough seemed to perplex her a bit. "È strano" ("it's strange"), she said. We did share some good laughs, however, when my roommate and I made a mess while cutting the cold butter into the flour and struggled to peel the apples with serrated dinner knives (she helped us a bit with this part).

The crust didn't hold together terribly well, so the pie was pretty much the epitome of a crude American dessert. The Italians, however, would call it brutto ma buono ("ugly but good", which happens to be the name of a classic Tuscan cookie).

Freshly baked pie (before)...

Clearly it was molto buono, because we nearly decimated it minutes after I took the photo above.

...and after

My host parents even gobbled up the tiny apple "tart" I made with the leftover crust and apples. They insisted, however, that my roommate and I take the leftover pie to our room and eat it for breakfast (which we very willingly did). Somehow, despite all the olive oil they consume every day, my host family was still too scared by the butter in the crust to consider eating pie two days in a row. For those who would like to try it, though, here's the recipe:

Very Basic Apple Pie

295 grams all-purpose flour
250 grams unsalted butter, chilled, cut into small pieces
3/4 teaspoon salt
4 to 8 tablespoons ice water

Juice of 1/2 to 1 lemon (you may need more or less depending on the tartness of your apples)
6 to 8 medium apples (a combo of Granny Smith and Golden Delicious or any crisp baking apples, such as Macouns), peeled, cored, and sliced (toss the prepared apples with the lemon juice in a large bowl to prevent them from browning)
75 grams granulated sugar (you may also need to modulate the amount of sugar depending on the tartness of your apples)
50 to 75 grams Demerara sugar (or light brown sugar)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon (or to taste)
2 to 3 tablespoons flour
Pinch of salt

Combine flour and salt in a medium bowl, then work in butter with a pastry cutter, two knives, or your fingertips until mixture resembles a coarse meal. Sprinkle with ice water, starting with the minimum amount, and mix lightly with a fork or your hands until the mixture just becomes together. Add more ice water if needed, but be careful not to over-mix, or the dough will be tough.

Divide the dough into two parts, and wrap each one in plastic wrap, flattening into a disk as you go. Ideally, you should chill the dough for 30 minutes. If you don't have time, proceed to roll out the dough now, although it will be a bit difficult to work with and will result in a tougher crust.

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Toss the apples with the sugars, cinnamon, flour, and salt in a large bowl and let sit. If you haven't already done so, roll out one piece of the dough on a lightly floured work surface, then drape it over the rolling pin and transfer it to a pie pan. Leave a generous inch or two of overhang and gently press the dough into the pan. Pour the apples into the crust, then roll out the second piece of dough and lay it on top of the apples. Cut off the excess dough (use this to make a mini-apple tart or cinnamon roll), crimp the edges, and cut a few slashes in the top crust.

Place the pie on a cookie sheet to catch any juices and bake for 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to 350°F and continue to bake for 45 minutes to an hour, until crust is golden and filling is bubbling. Allow the pie to cool for at least 10 minutes before eating, although it's best enjoyed while still somewhat warm.