Focaccia is one of the world's oldest flatbreads with roots in ancient Greece and with the Etruscans, even before the Roman Empire reared its head. The Romans called it panis focacius (bread of the hearth) in Latin. In its basic form, it is a leavened bread, very similar to pizza but without all that cheese. There have been versions of focaccia all through the Mediterranean coastline in Europe and northern Africa. In ancient Roman days, it looked like a very simple, flat round of pull-apart bread. It was a meal to be carried by shepherds and fishermen and meant to be eaten later. In regions of neighboring France it's called fougasse. In Argentina and Brazil--both with large Italian immigrant populations--its name is fugazza and they can be either topped with stringy cheese or even double-crusted and stuffed.
The common modern form of focaccia is dimpled with fingertips to make little wells that can hold savory items like olives, cherry tomatoes, peppers, red onion, sliced potatoes, garlic or even sweet things like figs, pear slices, blueberries, walnuts, dates, honey, anise seeds, bulbing fennel (finnocchio), orange zest or grapes. The top is usually brushed or drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and sprinkled with rosemary, sea salt, pepper or other spices. Of course, you can sprinkle a bit of cheese (usually grated), but go to far and you've crossed the line between focaccia and pizza. The variations are endless.
In Italy, most pasticceria (pastry shops), panetteria (bread bakery) and even bars will have slices of focaccia often sliced and priced by weight. (Note: A "bar" in Italy is a family friendly place to get cappuccino and pastry in the morning and panini for lunch.)
Focaccia is usually baked in 1" deep, dark steel pans. The texture is usually bready and for that reason a high protein "strong" flour (bread flour here in the U.S.) is used. The thickness also has the benefit of being used to make panini, slicing through the middle and stuffing with provolone, mozzarella, prosciutto or thing slices of salami.
1-3/4 cups warm water (110-115F)
1-1/5 tablespoons fast acting yeast
1 tablespoon honey
For the dough:
1 cup King Arthur all-purpose flour
2-3 cups King Arthur bread flour (plus extra bench flour)
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon sea salt
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Extra virgin olive oil for the pan
Extra virgin olive oil (for brushing)
1/4 cup grated cheese (using 1/4 holes/box grater), provolone, asiago, or caciocavallo
(cheese is optional)
Dried thyme, rosemary, oregano, fresh ground pepper, sea salt
Preheat oven to 435F with a pizza stone or steel on the center shelf.
You can reheat in a microwave by wrapping with a damp paper towel, then heating for 30 seconds (time depends on the power of your unit). To kick it up a notch, try a fresh drizzle of extra virgin olive oil (we really recommend unfiltered) or an aged balsamic. For a quick lunch, top with a draping of prosciutto. You can also slice focaccia in half and use to make a panino (sandwich) filled with thin sliced colt cuts and cheese or even cooked ingredients like grilled eggplant, tomatoes and mozzarella or roasted vegetables.
Now that you know the basics of making focaccia, consider getting creative, as these examples illustrate. Look for color contrasts, textures and interesting shapes with your choice of toppings. Consider unusual things like asparagus, cauliflower, beets, basil, cilantro, kale, mushrooms, berries, capers, chives, colored course sea salt, and various seeds. Depending on your ingredients, you might have to partially bake your focaccia first with ingredients that can cook during the entire bake time and need to be pressed into the dough. For other things that might burn, like seeds or tender leaves like basil, position on top during later stages of baking.
Be creative and make a masterpiece for a special occasion, or simply make simple focaccia for every day snacks and meals...
You might also be interested in...
Forni Italiani: 21 Regional Breads from Italy
The Secret Life of Ciabatta
Scarpetta: Bread Wipes the Italian Plate Clean
Italian Easter Bread: Pane di Pasqua Recipe
Pane Coccoi: The Amazing Sardinian Art of Decorated Breads
Forno Antico Santa Chiara: More than Just a Bread Bakery
Some people called my Dad acting "silly" as a negative, but not me. Anything silly, I love. Something offbeat, oddball, out of the norm, and I'm automatically drawn to it. The time Dad wore vampire teeth at a fancy wedding's cocktail hour was wonderful. My discovery of this interesting pizza is also wonderful: pizza scima ("silly pizza") from the cucina povera traditions of Abruzzo. It's authentic and offbeat.
Why is it called "silly"? To understand the name, we have to get into the evolution of the Abruzzese dialect word "scima". This is an unleavened bread, and the Italian word azzimo (masculine) or azzima (feminine) in Italian means unleavened, referring to any bread that's made without yeast. In dialect the word is ascime. Southern Italians tend to shorten words, in this case the word was simplified to scima (SHEE-ma). Scema in Italian can mean either stupid or silly, perhaps in this case referring to someone silly enough to make bread without leavening...
The history of this pizza evolved from the 13th century Jews who settled in Abruzzo and made unleavened bread. Traditionally it is baked directly on an open wood fired hearth, common in many country homes even today. After coming up to temperature, the wood coals are cleared to the sides and the dough round is placed directly on the brick base. Next, the dough is covered with a 5" tall dark steel coppo (like a large pot cover) and coal embers are placed on top. This baking method is similar to the Colonial American method of baking bread in a cast iron Dutch oven in an open fireplace.
The baking method below tries to mimic the open hearth by baking on a pre-heated pizza stone (to cook the bottom) with a dark pan placed over the top of the pizza (to create a moist, but hot baking environment). You might even try to make this pizza using a baking cloche.
Common in the southern towns of Casoli, Roccascalegna, Altino, Lanciano and San Vito Chietino, this pizza is characterized by the addition of extra virgin olive oil and wine. Each year there is even a pizza scima sagra (food festival) in Casoli.
Useful Tools on Amazon...
Continued from Part 1...
Finzi: Of course, we’ve read your new book, Ciao Italia: My Lifelong Food Adventures in Italy. You've given us all some more great recipes and stories with an enormous degree of detail. Another winner, for sure. Brava, Maestra!
Speaking from an Italian-American perspective, what are the main differences between Italian cuisine and the dishes Italian-Americans served here? And regardless of their lack of authenticity, which Italian-American dishes do you really love?
Mary Ann: Regional dishes are based on local ingredients, fresh ingredients and simple preparation. Italian-American food is often based on many canned foods like beans and prepared tomato sauces and inferior, imitation cheese. Of course I love spaghetti and meatballs and chicken “parm” like anyone else.
Finzi: I grow our own string beans and especially love those yard-long heirloom beans that can plate like a green spaghetti, but I'll have to take your advice and start growing my own beans. We do make our own sauces from scratch, but most of the year used high quality canned tomatoes. In summer we do make fresh tomato sauce, which is wonderful.
Chicken “parm” is a favorite in our house, too. We love the way my wife makes it (casserole style with rigatoni) but I also make a lighter version more like a standalone corso secondo.
All of us have our favorite cookbooks. We have a collection of yours (of course), but also from Julia Child, Nick Malgieri, Marcella Hazan and Pierre Franey. Which cookbooks couldn’t you live without? Also, what are some historic cookbooks you would recommend for people wanting to explore the history of Italian cuisine?
Mary Ann: Ada Boni’s, Italian Cooking; Waverly Root, The Food of Italy; John Keahy, Seeking Sicily; Carol Field, The Italian Baker; Pellegrino Artusi, The Science in the Kitchen and The Art of Eating Well
Finzi: We actually have one on your list--Carol Field’s Italian Baker is amazing and includes a fantastic recipe for focaccia.
What regions—or towns—have you never visited or cooked in when traveling through Italy? Which are on your bucket list, and why?
Mary Ann: I have never cooked in Friuli or Calabria and I would love to cook in Abruzzo because the food is very high quality, and I love the way they use almonds in cooking. Although I love the confetti (candy coated almonds), there is so much more to do with them.
Fried Fish Fillets with Parmesan and Almond Coating
Finzi: We agree totally. We love the flavor of almonds in all manner of pastries. But to be honest, I personally never went for confetti almonds—I was always worried about breaking a tooth!
The waves of Italian Diaspora during the 19th and 20th centuries brought Italian migration to several countries around the world, merging Italian cuisine with that of their host countries. Have you ever thought of exploring the evolution of this mash-up of culinary cultures? (Examples: Brazil, Argentina, Australia, Tunisia).
Mary Ann: It is a great idea and I have thought of it. It's on our bucket list!
Finzi: I’ll be looking forward to see what you come up with. By the way, in researching my own surname’s roots, I have discovered that there are nearly as many Finzi in Brazil as in Italy! I’m in touch with many of them via Facebook—perhaps I’ll ask them for some fusion Italian-Brazilian family recipes!
Are there any other countries you like to visit and cuisines you enjoy cooking? A fusion, perhaps?
Mary Ann: I just love Ireland and their food is fantastic. I also enjoy cooking Chinese food.
Click the photo above to see our own Shepherd's Pie Recipe
Finzi: This past Saint Patrick’s Day, I made my annual shepherd’s pie and my wife Lisa made her Irish Soda bread. Although my wife Lisa makes fantastic Chinese food, she hasn’t picked up her wok in a while. (Hint, hint.) There is such a wealth of ethic food in the world and so many influences in the regional foods of Italy!
You’ve cooked with many famous chefs over the years, but we also appreciate when you cook along with home cooks here and in Italy (I still remember the episode with your Mom). Have you thought of doing a series of shows where you feature these home cooks’ recipes?
Mary Ann: We have featured many home cooks and you will see them on our new season coming this spring. I learn a lot from them.
Finzi: My mother was a pretty good Italian cook and my Dad worked as a grocer and deli man his whole life. Because of this, my favorite heirlooms from them is Mom’s scolapasta, her large pasta pot, her ravioli pin, Dad’s meat slicer and even his retractable crayon marker he used to mark prices on cold cuts. Which kitchen heirlooms do you treasure?
Mary Ann: My nonna Saporito’s 2 ft long, thin rolling pin, her cleaver, chitarra, my mother’s scribbled notebooks on Italian foods, her apron and old cannoli forms made out of bamboo.
Finzi: Bamboo cannoli forms? I love the idea. Easy to make if you have a neighbor with overgrown patch of bamboo.
Beside heirloom kitchen tools, my Mom left me her techniques of making “Sunday gravy”, gnocchi (click for RECIPE) with a fork and her Italian style Pot Roast (click for RECIPE). Dad taught me how to make giant deli meatballs (click for RECIPE) Thanksgiving turkey, Christmas ham and all about home grown heirloom tomatoes. What are the most important technique your family's cooks passed along to you?
Mary Ann: Use your hands! They are your best tools.
Finzi: According to my son, my pizzas and other dishes are so good that he’d like to see me open a pizzeria or restaurant, but I simply enjoy cooking for my family and friends. With both of your grandmothers cooking for professional reasons, did you ever consider “going pro” and perhaps opening your own restaurant? If “no”, why not? Personally, I would really enjoy dining in your Trattoria Ciao Italia!
Mary Ann: No, because I think of my show, Ciao Italia! as my restaurant. Opening a restaurant means a commitment to be there and I cannot do both at the same time.
Finzi: Last summer, we vacationed in Cape Ann, Massachusetts and seemed to discover Italian influences just about everywhere. When we visited the North End of Boston we considered it to be a better Little Italy than Manhattan’s Little Italy, the Bronx’s Arthur Avenue or Philly’s Italian Market district. Which “Little Italys” have you visited and what are the best features of each?
Mary Ann: I've been to most: Boston, Philadelphia, San Diego, New Orleans. Philadelphia has retained more authenticity; the rest are fading examples.
Copyright, 2020 - Jerry Finzi/GrandVoyageItaly.com - All Rights Reserved
Not to be reproduced in any form without expressed, written permission.
Long before my mother passed, I would visit her and Dad in their suburban New Jersey home and we would watch Mary Ann Esposito's show, Ciao Italia on their local PBS station. While I learned Mary Ann's recipe and techniques on TV, my mother passed on her own recipes and hands-on lessons in her humble New Jersey kitchen, in the same way her mother had taught her.
Mom taught me to make soups first, then stews, then how to make more complex things like light, fluffy gnocchi (I still remember how quickly her arthritic fingers tossed those gnocchi from the ends of a fork). While Mom taught me our own ricette di famiglia Finzi, Mary Ann helped me perfect techniques to help me become a pretty decent, all-around Italian home cook. She also helped me understand that Italian cuisine isn't just one thing... there are many cuisines to be explored in Italy.
I wanted to have a conversation with Mary Ann in honor of my Mother, since both of these wonderful Italian women have been a strong influence in my own life in my own Cucina. My Mother would be proud to know that I shared a few words with one of our Italian heroines.
Mary Ann is the author of 13 books on the art of regional Italian cooking. She has taught millions of fans how to cook authentic, regional, healthy and delicious dishes on her PBS show Ciao Italia, currently in production for its 29th season of episodes! Mary Ann has over 30,000 followers on Facebook and over 1,400 recipes on her Ciao Italia website. She has also made over 40 tours of Italy, 18 of which were organized as cooking classes attended by loyal home cooks.
Mary Ann was gracious in affording me some of her precious time, her schedule made even busier with the recent launch of her new book Ciao Italia: My Lifelong Food Adventures in Italy, as well as her preparing for the 2020 broadcast of her new season of shows on PBS (check your local PBS listings).
So, pour yourself an espresso, sit back and enjoy our conversation. As a bonus, I also discussed gardening with her husband, Dr. Guy Esposito, the official Ciao Italia gardener.
Mary Ann learning about Piadina, a flat bread from Emilia-Romagna
Finzi: You’ve been on PBS continuously for 29 years… certainly an achievement for any TV cooking show. Can you explain your commitment to PBS and if you’ve ever been approached to do a show on a commercial cooking network? If you were offered a show, why didn’t you take the offer?
Mary Ann: I wanted to have a personal connection with my audience without interruption or distraction and I wanted it to be my show in my words without someone else telling me how to do it. It would have been so much easier to go to go the commercial route but I had higher goals.
Finzi: I see your point, Mary Ann. They might have re-packaged what you were bringing to the table (excuse the pun) and your menus might have been someone else’s choices, perhaps by committee. We’re happy you followed your own path.
Certainly for my family, some of our favorite episodes have included location segments filmed in Italy. Does your new season include any Italian segments? And throughout the history of your voyages, where were your favorite places to explore—and cook?
Mary Ann: Location shoots require a huge effort and lots of money but when our budget allows, we are in Italy. This year for our new season, we will be filming in Tuscany in the fall. All the regions are my favorite, but I am partial to Sicily and Campania.
Finzi: I agree with you on this. There's something so warm and welcoming in the South--a much slower pace. For me, I felt most at home when visiting Puglia where my father was born. The people's welcoming smiles reminded me of him.
Some of my other favorite Ciao Italia episodes had you baking with the amazing pastry chef, Nick Malgieri. We love Nick because he was kind enough years ago to help me find the recipe for “pas-ah-chut”, as my Molfettese father called them (pasticiotti). What are your favorite pastries to make?
Mary Ann: Of course I love to make cannoli, fruit tarts, lots of different biscotti.
Finzi: My thing is making the Crostata di Frutta in our cucina, but my wife is the go-to gal for all sorts of cookies, cakes and pies. Happily, this year she is exploring the world of the twice-baked dolci—biscotti.
I've always loved pizza and even worked at our local pizzeria for a while when I was a teen, and for nearly 20 years and I've become a fairly decent pizzaiolo at home. I’ve made Neapolitan, Chicago and Detroit deep dish, “grandma’s”, sfincione, focaccia, thin crust, etc. I think I’ve saved every one of your pizza episodes on my DVR. Which is your favorite pizza and what do you think makes it so special?
Mary Ann: I would have to say Margherita is my favorite but I love making all kinds. The important thing is to use as close to original ingredients as possible like Caputo flour for the dough, real mozzarella di Bufala and fresh basil.
Finzi: Happily, home gardens, farmers markets and the Farm to Table movement are growing in popularity. Living in the country, we often have to travel to Philadelphia or New York to get precious ingredients like mozzarella di Bufala, but we do grow our own veggies and lots of basil!
For me, baking pastry is very specific and precise, which is perhaps why my wife does that in our house. What are your thoughts on “cooking to the recipe” versus cooking the way nonne do, by taste, look and feel?
Mary Ann: I’m with you; I never cook with recipes even though I write books with precise recipes for readers based on my testing them. I think the best cooks are those who improvise.
Finzi: In my case, improvisation can make it a little difficult when I want to share one of my recipes with our GVI readers. I have to convert a pinch, a dollop, a handful, a splash or to describe how a dough should look and feel.
What I’ve always loved about your cooking is the historic and anthropological perspective you bring into the Italian kitchen. You teach that “Italian food” doesn’t really exist, but it’s really about the 20 different regional cuisines of Italy. What would you like to see as an effort to change the American view of “Italian food” as only being pizza, chicken “parm” or spaghetti and meatballs?
Mary Ann: Watch my show! Read things about regional cooking; in my just released new book CIAO ITALIA (My LIFELONG FOOD ADVENTURES IN ITALY) you will find a treasure trove of regional recipes with stories that support their origin.
Copyright, 2020 - Jerry Finzi/GrandVoyageItaly.com - All Rights Reserved
Not to be reproduced in any form without expressed, written permission.
March 19 is a very special saint day in Italy... La Festa di San Giuseppe. This is the day that Catholics celebrate not only Saint Joseph, but all fathers. Consider this day as the Italian Father's Day...
A special tradition is making and serving Pane di San Giuseppe, a shaped bread formed into a variety of designs for loaves that will adorn La Tavola di San Giuseppe. You'd be surprised at the amazing and luscious spreads on Italian's tables for their Cena di San Giuseppe, both in private homes and for community and church groups. Traditional forms for breads are crowns, crosses, crabs, donkeys, staffs, wheat, images of St. Joseph, and braids representing the Blessed Mother. This bread has a rich texture and a slightly sweet taste. To pay homage to St. Joseph being a carpenter, breadcrumbs and sesame seeds signify sawdust fallen from his saw.
Here is a basic recipe for making Pane di San Giuseppe in a braid form...
Just in time for the holidays... Autumn Beet Tart!
(Easier to say than Torta d'Autunno con Barbabietola, wouldn't you agree?)
For the Crust:
1 cup of all purpose flour
3/4 cup almond flour
3 teaspoons yeast
1/4 cup water
4 tablespoons of cane sugar
2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon of ground fennel seeds
1 pinch of salt
1 beaten egg
For the Filling:
2 large beet roots, steamed
1/2 brown sugar
In Palermo there is a type of pizza that is similar to the thick, bready crust of focaccia, but unlike focaccia, it has tomato sauce on the top. Ingredients are usually put on in a reverse fashion--the mozzarella or caciocavallo cheese placed on the dough first with the sauce goes on top. What makes this pizza stand apart from others is the final topping: a healthy dusting of breadcrumbs, which turns this into a classic, Sicilian sfincione.
There are derivatives of sfincione, like the tomato pies made around the Philadelphia and Trenton, New Jersey region. This cousin of sfincione is thick and bready, but has a solitary topping of thick tomato sauce with perhaps a sprinkling of grated parmesan cheese (if any) and is always served room temperature. Personally, the tomato pies I've had have been a bit too intense on tomato flavor.
For my version of sfincione, I topped it with julienned slices of caciocavallo cheese and Italian style breadcrumbs. Of course, you can also put some stale ciabatta in a food processor and make a rough textured breadcrumb for the topping. I didn't overload my sfincione with breadcrumbs, but keep in mine, in Palermo they might put a fairly thick (1/4") topping of lightly toasted breadcrumbs on top. I made this during the late summer when I had an abundance of my Olivette Jaune heirloom tomatoes, so onto the top they went...
1-13x17" half sheet pan (dark colored to create a well baked crust)
thin, cotton kitchen towel
baking stone (better yet, a baking steel)
Proofing the yeast
1 tablespoon active yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
1 - 1/2 cups water at 115F
For the dough:
2-3 cups bread flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
For the sauce:
28 ounce can crushed tomatoes (I recommend Tuttorosso brand)
4 small anchovies in oil
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons dry basil (or 8 large, fresh basil leaves, julienned)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Thin slices of caciocavallo cheese (alternate, sharp provolone)
1-2 cups Italian style breadcrumbs (or 3 cups, rough chopped fresh breadcrumbs)
2 tablespoons Oregano (for mixing with bread crumbs)
Yellow olive shaped tomatoes, halved
Extra virgin olive oil
Grated Parmigiano Reggiano or similar cheese
caramelized onions, prosciutto, olives, pimentos, anchovies, fresh basil or oregano leaves.
Making the Dough
To make the sauce:
Putting together the Sfincione:
Slice your sfincione into squares or rectangles for serving with a simple salad and a glass of red Sicilian wine, such as Corvo Rosso. And don't forget, sfincione is traditionally served at Natale (Christmas) and the Italian father's day, la Festa di San Giuseppe on March 19th.
You might also be interested in...
How to Make a Great Pizza Crust
Making the Best Pizza Sauce
Our Double-Crust Pizza Rustica!
My New Pizza Steel
Our Deep Dish Pizza!
Easter is called Pasqua in Italy, and is a time for celebration and breaking the Lenten fast. In Italy, spring comes early, the weather is wonderful and the scent of flowers blossoming are everywhere. Pasqua is a time for feasting with la famiglia. The Monday after Easter Sunday is a national holiday called Pasquetta (Little Easter), when most businesses close and workers spend the day at home with their family.
There are many types of celebration sweet pane (breads) and savory torte (cakes or tarts) in Italy, many of which made from family recipes handed down from generation to generation--often hundreds of years old. Some are known all over Italy while others are regional or local traditional recipes. One has to keep in mind, however, that even within each region there are variations in these recipes--often changing from town to town or family to family. Just keep in mind, it's all about the feast.
Here are some of the more popular treats with links to their traditional Italian recipes. If you need translations you can always cut and paste the text of each recipe into Google Translate (or better yet, install a translation plug-in into your browser to do it automatically).
Enjoy... and Buona Pasqua!
During the Christmas Holidays--even in the States--panettone and pandoro are both in plentiful supply, even in large supermarket chains. In fact, I bought several imported pandoro and panettone (they store and freeze well) two days after Christmas for under $5 each!
Pandoro literally means golden bread, and lends itself to making a tree shape because of its fluted sides. To make a tree shape, simply cut 3/4 - 1" thick slices, ensuring that each slice is cut as flat as possible to prevent your "tree" from leaning when re-assembling later. A very sharp chef's knife is better than a serrated bread knife which would create too many crumbs.
You will be filling each layer and re-assembling by alternating the position of each layer to position its points in between the points of the layers below them. Keep track of the orientation of the layers and re-assemble to keep your "tree" from leaning--flipping them upside and to the side after cutting each helps keep them in order.
To make ours, I brushed each layer with a coating of heated and softened seedless red raspberry jam, then willed each layer with some vanilla custard, the same recipe I use when I make pasticiotti. You can also fill them with zabaglione, butter cream, or a store-bought vanilla, or other flavored pudding mix.
I held back a bit of the custard and placed it into a piping bag with a fluted tip, then piped rosettes around the tiers of the assembled panettone tree, placing a blackberry on each. You can use fresh blueberries, strawberries, raspberries or pitted cherries. Top the cake with more piped custard and berries, or place a star-shaped Christmas cookie standing up. Powdered sugar adds a dusting of "snow" to make it look really festive.
Traditionally, you make tall sliced wedges for each serving and lay them on their side in a dessert plate.
Vanilla Custard Recipe
While French style egg custards can be difficult to master, this is a very easy custard due to the fact that the cornstarch is the thickening agent. This recipe can be used for many pastry treats that utilize a custard as a bed for berries.
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 cup sugar
1 - 1/2 cup whole milk or Half & Half
2 egg yolks
1 tablespoon butter
1 teaspoon butter
In a medium saucepan, whisk together the cornstarch and sugar.
Whisk in the milk and egg yolks.
Place the saucepan on medium heat, stirring with either whisk or spatula until the custard starts to thicken.
Add the vanilla extract and butter and stir until creamy, thick and smooth.
Transfer to a bowl to cool, covering the surface with plastic wrap to prevent a skin from forming.
Spread melted seedless on each layer of your pandoro and then spread on a layer of custard. Do this for each payer as you re-assemble your "tree". Pipe rosettes as described above and place your berries. Dust with powdered sugar.
Making gingerbread and gingerbread houses have deep roots in history. Honey cakes can be traced to ancient Rome and culinary historians verify that ginger has been seasoning foodstuffs and drinks since antiquity. It is believed that the gingerbread as it appears today was first baked in Europe at the end of the 11th century, when returning crusaders brought back the custom of spicy bread from the Middle East. Ginger was not only tasty, but also had properties that helped preserve the bread something essential in the ancient world.
According to a medieval legend, there was originally a fourth Magi who was to bring yet another gift to the infant Jesus--ginger. Sometime during his journey he fell ill and never got to Bethlehem, but a local Rabbi nursed him back to health. The Rabbi taught him that the name for Bethlehem in Hebrew actually meant House of Bread, and further told him of how he tasked his young students to make houses of bread to eat in preparation of their hopes for the coming of their Messiah. The Magus gave his chest full of ginger roots to the Rabbi and suggested adding ground-up ginger to the bread for flavor and preservation. The gingerbread house was born!
Gingerbread, as we know it today, descends from Medieval European culinary traditions. The spicy delight was also shaped into different forms by monks in Germany in the 13th century but quickly spread to other European countries. Medieval bakers used carved boards to create elaborate designs but in other places such as Calabria, Italy artisans hand shaped the spicy dough into elaborate designs, still popular today during holidays such as Easter and Christmas. Click HERE to read more about the art of Shaped Mostaccioli, the Calbrian Gingerbread.
As you can see in the photos above, our gingerbread projects were modest at first, mostly a chance to begin the tradition for our son Lucas when he was a little boy. But then our passion for constructing gingerbread grew more complex and we started entering gingerbread house competions...
Our 2018 Gingerbread Project:
Lucas' Concept to Recreate an historic A&P Grocery Store
For this year's project, I really wanted to do an Amalfi Coast hillside village complete with rugged mountain and multiple houses clinging to the cliffs, I was out-voted and we decided to build my son Lucas' concept for a 1930s vintage A&P grocery store--a timely choice since the A&P supermarket chain, the oldest in America, had recently closed all of its stores. Besides, to win, Lisa and Lucas both thought we should do a more "all-American" theme.
The trouble with completing our project was that time was not on our side. For example, to create our gingerbread Colosseum it took about 6 weeks, from planning through baking all the components to finished construction. I don't know how time slipped away from us, but we only had about 10 days to plan and complete our A&P store, which would be difficult to impossible due to all the new techniques we were going to employ for the first time: melted candy windows, poured clear gelatin window "glass", creating miniature products and produce, fondant checkerboard tile floor and fondant asphalt paving, edible printed signage and timed electrical lighting!
Well, somehow we did it! We delivered our project within 15 minutes of the delivery deadline!
In the end, we won First Place in the Authentic Reproduction of a Significant Building category. I think we won based on to Lucas' concept and especially his skill in creating the brick textures and miniature details (fruitcake, fruit, watermelons, pumpkins, baguettes, a cheese board and much more) and his graphic design for all the signage! Oh, and of course, as usual, my wife Lisa helped with the preparation of the gingerbread dough and fondant.
We Three make a great gingerbread team, don't you think?