It continues to intrigue me how much more connected I have grown to the food and culture of my Italian heritage since moving to Maine, where I am away from the family, bakeries, and cities that have always been there to sate my cravings for specialty desserts and cured meats. My critical palate for Italian food has led to me to focus on learning how to make my favorite foods from scratch.
Next in line was pizza dolce. I called my grandmother and finally penned down her recipe for pizza dolce, pronounced by my Southern Italian family as “pizza dulch.” Traditionally made around Easter, this sweet pie is an Italian cheesecake made with ricotta. The grainy-smooth ricotta cheese results in a very light cheesecake, and the vanilla extract, orange blossom water, and cinnamon combine elegantly on the tongue. My mom and her sisters have the recipe, but I opted to go straight to the source: Mommom.
She rattled off the ingredients list with no hesitation and no recipe. For the crust, she recommended mixing the dry ingredients and adding water “until it-a form-a the dough.” For the filling, she instructed to add “half a box” of this to “a small glass” of that, among other equally vague steps. Her delivery left me stranded in a territory where many feel uncomfortable: baking without an exact recipe.
I barely use recipes to cook, but when I bake, I am still pretty reliant on them. The old world cook embodied in my grandmother doesn’t sweat the small stuff because she doesn’t need to. She knows how her food should come out and has perfected recipes by look and feel. She knows how each ingredient will alter the outcome, and I can only hope to gain some of this intuition with the mainstays of my family’s culinary history. If this pizza dolce project says anything, it whispers, “You’re on the right track.”
A celebration is rarely complete without food and beverage. My family, like most, has such ingrained food traditions that I come to expect certain foods on certain holidays. The winter holidays (namely, Christmas and New Year’s) are the most emblematic of these food expectations. Mom always makes approximately fifteen kinds of Christmas cookies the weeks leading up to the big day. Christmas Eve consists of fette dei sette pesci, or feast of the seven fishes, with dishes like baccala salad, fried smelts, and spaghetti with tuna marinara. And Christmas morning holds my favorite tradition of all: egg nog, clementines, and panettone.
By Thanksgiving, panettone have arrived at the seasonal displays at our local grocery stores in New Jersey, and around December 15th, there are already a panettone or two in the house waiting to be unwrapped: the most desired and fleeting gift of Christmas morning. This year, though, I spent the weeks leading up to Christmas in Maine. As I might have mentioned here a few times before, Maine has few Italians and even fewer places to by Italian food. So one night, before venturing on the twenty minute drive to the nearest Hannaford to fulfill my panettone craving, I gave them a call to see if they had it in stock. After my inquiry was misheard as “melatonin” and I was transferred around between four different employees, I finally caved. I was making panettone myself.
Following Mario Batali’s recipe, I mixed the dough and watched it through the first and second rise, kneading it a bit here and there and finally adding the raisins. I was a bit hesitant about getting the shape right (right = pretty much a top hat), but the oven and the yeast seemed to do all the work for me. When I took this out of the oven, I almost sang.
Speaking of Italian pastry one cannot find in Maine, easily or at all, I visited New Haven, CT on my way back north and went to Lucibello’s Pastry Shop. The smell of butter and sugar smacks you on the head when you walk into this very unassuming bakery, coaxing you to buy their cookies and pastries. I got two pignoli cookies (probably my favorite cookie of all time) and a sfogliatella (or lobster tail, or lobster claw, or ricotta-filled pastry) for the bus.
One day approximately five months ago, my friend Daniel and I made Italian love knot cookies. For some reason (thesis, job applications, and otherwise being a senior), I never got around to posting the gorgeous pictures he shot or the recipe we used. I simply glommed the cookies and moved on with my life. Time to remedy that! All of the pictures were taken by Dan.
Moleskine Recipe Journal, courtesy my handsome and lovely brother Johnny
Cookies Waiting to be Baked
On Drip Tray, with Zest Garnish
Two cups of Magic Hat #9, 2 cups heavy cream, 1 cup sugar, 8 egg yolks, and liquid nitrogen make for a boozy, creamy, ridiculous experience. I doubled the Los Angeles Times recipe. You can make the ice cream base mixture and use a standard ice cream machine, but liquid nitrogen is reminiscent of brewing witch potion and therefore far superior.
My cousin and I went to Cups after our snorkeling adventure, and our moms stopped by the La Jolla cupcake lounge one morning while waiting for stores to open. The four of us returned one evening after watching the sunset from Mount Soledad, a beautiful but freezing location.
My cuz and I split the Raspberry Basil Cupcake. Cups’ selection rotates every day, and while all varieties seem delicious, I always go for savory elements in my sweets. Always. You could taste the butter in the icing, as well as a shade of raspberry essence, but the star was the cake portion of the cupcake. Even at the end of the day, the cupcake tasted fresh with a light but chewy texture. The basil flavor fit in seamlessly, and the entire experience was very reminiscent of eating a slice of carrot cake, with strong notes of cinnamon and an ingredient fondly remembering its savory applications, but not missing them.
Sera’s Chai is pictured above, but it was way too sweet for either of us to enjoy. Overwhelmingly saccharine, like those kind folks who sometimes overdo it.
I ordered a Brazilian coffee: a shot (or two?) of espresso brewed with spices. Every few sips, a little speck of cinnamon stick would land in my mouth. Sounds unpleasant, but chewing on these was warmly refreshing and a great complement to the bitter strength of the coffee.