Summer is in full swing, and with Italy currently in the midst of a full blown heatwave, here is an idea from southern Italy that will help you beat the heat...
Brioche Gelato Burgers!
More and more popular in Sicily, Puglia and Calabria, the trend is catching on. In the last several years, the sweet, glossy brioche bun has gained popularity in the States, used as the go-to bun for burgers and sliders. But the sweet, soft crumb of the classic brioche also pairs well with gelato (OK, and ice cream, too). Grilling the sliced brioche helps raise the flavor a notch. Toppings or spreads can include, crushed pistachios or sliced almonds, Nutella, Pirouettes crackers, almond biscotti crumbs, whipped cream or zabaglione, or a smear of almond paste. How about a trio of gelato sliders? To add crunch, tuck a pizzelle inside!
You know, I always thought I'd have a problem eating weird things if I ever traveled in the Orient. I'm a person with a fairly narrow palate... I admit it. Even my 14 year old, Lucas has a much broader palate than I do. I like what I like and won't try what I know I don't like. I'm old enough to say that I have tried lots of stuff--for instance, I hate caviar and cooked spinach makes me gag. I know what I can't stomach. In my research and travels about Italy, I've come across things that I wouldn't eat if you paid me. Some things I'll try--once--while others... well, you just sort of know to stay clear.
Still, we have to respect the culinary traditions of our Italian heritage and try not to be so grossed out by it. Food is fuel--fuel is food. In Italy, nothing goes to waste--not beast or flora. So, I hope you pardon me as I poke a little fun at some of Italy's oddest culinary creations--even though I may tease a bit, I still want to honor the complexities if la Cucina Italiana...
In ancient Rome peacock eggs, boiled ostrich
and stewed parrots were common on menus.
There is a protected, fluffy tailed species of dormice (Glis glis or Ghiro) that have been eaten since the days the Caesars ran things. Down in Calabria the rodents are still stuffed and chomped on. They are stuffed with meat, nuts, raisins, onions and spices. You can imagine little squeaks as you take a bite. I have no idea what they do with all those cute fluffy tails.
Ghiri alla pizzaiola :
Ingredients : . 2 Ghires, 50 g of lard, 50g of pancetta, gr 600 gr peeled tomatoes, 1 tablespoon of chopped parsley, 1 tablespoon of oregano, 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, 1/2 teaspoon of salt
Engage the dormice lengthwise, peel them, quickly remove the bladder without
breaking it and leave it in running water for a few hours.
Rinse them and blanch in boiling water for a couple of minutes.
Chop the lard and the bacon and put the mince in the belly of the dormice.
Place them in a large pan, pour the oil and cover with chopped tomatoes,
parsley and minced garlic, oregano and salt.
Cook over moderate heat, keeping the pan tightly closed with the lid.
Riccota Forte (or Scanta)
The Pugliese are a resourceful bunch. I know--mu Dad was from Puglia. Many of you may know that ricotta means twice cooked or re-cooked... basically, ricotta is a by-product of normal, everyday cheese making. You take the little bit of whey left over, add an acid, boil it and presto, you have ricotta cheese. It's a fresh cheese and should be eaten within a couple of days. When it dries out, the frugal Pugliese add salt, and let it dry even more into Ricotta Salada (one of my favorite cheeses).
But some go even further. Some just let it go bad... and stinky... and acrid, turning it into a Apulian delicacy called Ricotta Forte, or Scanta. Many think this acrid, foul smelling cheese is worse than any other stinky cheese they've even eaten--but in a good way. We tried it during our stay in trullo B&B outside of Alberobello. Yes, it stinks, and our host told us how it's just kept in a dark, un-refrigerated place (under his sink) to grow more bacteria and even sometimes microscopic worms--but we actually liked it! (But it did burn my eyes a tad).
It's the kind of taste that shocks your eyes open, assaults your nose but somehow in the end pleases your palate. It's also a surprise when you are first introduced to it in a plain jar that looks like it's your Aunt's 1950s era home brew face cream.
Enjoy. (Oh, just don't get it on anything sweet... I got it on some Nutella and bread by mistake and nearly got whiplash when I popped it in my mouth.)
Casu Marzu or Formaggio Marcio
(Rotten Cheese), with Maggots
Casu Marzu is a sheeps' milk cheese from Sardinia and Corsica (they call it Casgio Merzu) that actually contains maggots--live ones. Most cheeses rely on fermentation and bacteria to develop their flavor, but this cheese relies on actual decomposition caused by the Cheese Fly larvae. The texture is an oozing, seeping liquid, essentially caused by... well... maggot poop. Some people eat this stuff with the larvae, some will tickle the cheese, causing the larvae to be disturbed enough to actually jump out... as much as 6 inches! The daring who have tasted it say this muck is so acidic that it leaves an after taste in your mouth for hours afterward. I recall a cheese like this in France years ago--I wouldn't go near that either!
From what I hear, battarga is definitely an acquired taste that's at least a thousand years old and perhaps more ancient than that. It's made from the roe (fish egg) pouch of either grey mullet or Atlantic blue-fin tuna. The roe pouch is manipulated by hand to get rid of any air bubbles and then cured in sea salt for several weeks. After curing, the result is a hard, dried salty slab which is usually (but not always) coated in beeswax.
To use it, you grate some on top of pasta or on top of crostini (toasted bread) and drizzled with olive oil. It also can be used as a main ingredient along with garlic for tomato sauce. It has a tremendously long shelf life and is often smuggled out of Italy due to its high price--up to $140 a pound! You can actually order some on AMAZON.
Colatura di Alici, Fish Sauce
In ancient Roman times there was a fishy concoction called garum, a clear sauce made from salting and compression of various types of fish. The clear garum on top was used by the upper classes, while the sludge left over, called allec, was used by the lower classes to add flavor to polenta, porridge or on bread.
Today there is a modern version called Colatura di Alici made in one of my favorite villages on the Amalfi Coast, Cetera (click the photo to see it on Amazon). The first time I took a tour of Cetera at ground level on Google Earth I started seeing barrels and wondered why this village had so many. It's a fairly simple recipe...
The golden liquid is prized in Italy and is used to flavor all sorts of dishes. Watch the video of Colatura being made...
(Polenta with Songbirds, or Polenta e Osei)
Yes, the same song birds that will awaken you on a misty Tuscan morning are being shot or captured in hanging nets by hunters to supply their illegal bounty to select restaurants throughout Italy. Yes, it is illegal, but those doing it consider the practice as being furbo (crafty). They make a living while carrying on a tradition. In Tuscany the birds are flambéed, in Sardinia they are boiled and preserved, in the Veneto rolled in pork belly and fried. Perhaps the best known version is in Lombardy where they are grilled or fried.
It seems this is an elite recipe item in Italy. Ladies and gents get dressed up in all their finery and make an event out of eating these little skylarks, goldfinches and other types of song birds. Our hot air balloon pilot, Stefano told us they shoot anything in Italy, especially song birds, so much so that some species are becoming endangered. Oddly, we flew directly over some "hunters" in their treetop blind, releasing pigeons only to shoot them a moment or two later.
The little tweetys are usually stuffed with pork, beef, rabbit or even other birds. They are served with their heads and beaks on top of polenta, an attempt to mimic a bird's nest.
To illustrate how much Italians love this special dish, certain pasticcerie have created a legal version: a dessert called Polenta e Osei, made to look just like the real dish. It's made of a soft light sponge cake filled with hazelnut cream that is rolled in a yellow fondant. On top are little chocolate birds made from chocolate marzipan. You can find this in the town of Bergamo.
As for the real song bird dish, the macho thing is to pick up the birdie by the beak and leave nothing... devouring bones, beak and all. At least they are not as ruthless as a similar dish I saw in France years ago--where they drown the birds in the local brandy, then when eating drape a napkin over their heads and the dish to inhale the fragrances and crunch down on the bird, apparently head hidden in shame.
(Cheese from Cow's Intestines)
This is either a Roman dish or what the Devil himself would order up. A young, milk fed (no grass feed) calf is slaughtered, and besides getting veal, brains and other delicacies from it, the intestines are used to make this delicacy--pajata. The intestines are washed, but not emptied. When cooked, the partially-digested milk inside turns into a thick, funky cheesy substance which is used as a pasta sauce, and often served on its own with crostata. No grazie!
Cieche are baby eels that migrate upriver after being born in the sea. The name, Cieche (cieco) literally means blind – these babies have no eyes. In coastal areas of Tuscany, cieche are usually fried or boiled alive. Just be careful they don't jump out when you're trying to dump them into the boiling water or saute pan.
Tuscan Blood Torte
Enough said. A torte or cake made from the blood of pigs? I've tried Argentinian blood sausage and British blood sausage, and if the flavor is anything close to what I experienced, I would never go near this stuff. But this recipe contains cocoa and has a chocolate taste, albeit a bit more... er... pungent because of the pig's blood it contains. The pudding used is similar to Sanguinaccio Dolce, a traditional recipe in the South made when a pig is slaughtered using the pig's blood, chocolate, raisins pignoli and sugar. This is an example of the Italian philosophy that nothing goes to waste, not even the last drops of blood.
Watch the video below from the Two Greedy Italians series where Gennaro shows how they make the pudding (at 9:45).
Vending Machine Pizza
As all of the above proves, Italians will eat anything... even pizza made totally inside a robotic vending machine. Not THAT's a real crime!
Let's Pizza machines were initially designed and manufactured in Northern Italy. It offers a choice of four kinds of pies, and makes the pizza while you watch the whole process through windows--adding water to flour, kneading the dough, placing the sauce and toppings, and baking the pizza via infrared oven in just 2.5 minutes. It can produce 90 to 100 pizzas before it needs to be refilled. Ugh. Just because you can, doesn't mean you should!
Ok, so vending machine pizza isn't such a big deal, but how about (suspenseful music...) Gatto in Umido? This translates as "Stewed Cat"!
Calmati, Betty White... "Gatto in Umido" is simply Stewed Cat-Fish.
As I said, we all have to keep an open mind. I hope you enjoyed this look into the traditions of culinary Italy.
Via la Cucina Italiana!
For the Custard
The ancient town of of Soriano Calabro sits between the hills of Calabria and is known for the hard, spiced and shaped biscuits known as Mostaccioli (also, Mastazzola, Mustazzoli). They are traditionally made using grape must, a byproduct from wine-making process. These ornately decorated and shaped treats are popular for festivals, weddings, Christmas and Easter. The more traditional shapes include a parma (the palm), u panaru (the basket), a grasta (the heart), u pisci spada (the swordfish), and a sirena (the siren). Aside from the myriad of shapes, they are decorated with colored foil and some might even have been created using different colors of dough. These are not molded but cut and assembled by hand.
You can still see Mastazzolari (vendors) selling plastic wrapped Mostaccioli from their wooden trunks at sagre in the region, with parents buying ones shaped like a horse or bird for their children, or the devoted purchasing one shaped like a saint, angel, fish or basket as an offering on a saint's day. A heart shaped one might be given on a wedding, engagement or on San Valentino's day.
Click on the photo above to watch a video of Maestro Calabrese bakers making shaped Mostaccioli (alt', Mustacciuoli) celebration cookies by hand
Or, if you prefer, you can watch the video right here... Click below.
Mastazzolari and How They Sell Their Wares
Italian colazione (breakfast) is a simple daily ritual, and if not at home, had while standing at bar on the way to work: perhaps a scalding espresso, cappuccino (espresso and a dollop of foamed milk) or caffè latte (say "latte" alone and you'll get a glass of milk.)
For those Italians wanting to avoid caffeine, they never order "decaf", but might order a drink unknown to Americans: Orzo, a hot, nutty, roasted-barley beverage that looks like cocoa. Orzo means barley in Italian. It was originally intended as non-coffee substitute for children but has gained wide acceptance as a healthy alternative to the caffeine overdose experienced by espresso and cappuccino.
While the espresso starts their engines, they still need to fill their tanks in the morning. At home, Italians won't have bacon and eggs but might have cereal or a biscuit, fruit, juice and an espresso. If on the run, they will tend to start their day at a local bar with espresso and a dose of starch and sugar... pasticcini (pastries). Here are some common choices:
The cornetto is the less flaky, less buttery version of French croissant. Cornetti ripieni (filled) come with jam, cheese, pastry creme or Nutella. A plain one is a cornetto semplice or cornetto vuoto (empty). By the way, when you see the rectangular shaped ones filled with chocolate, they are called saccottino al cioccolato (sacks of chocolate) not pain au chocolat. This is Italy, after all.
A crostata is a fruit tart with a crust of pasta frolla, filled with either amarena (sour cherry), albicocca (apricot) or frutti di bosco (wild berry).
The ciambella is basically an Italian doughnut often filled with jam or custard.
Viennoiserie are the fancier, more refined pastries with a French influence. They might include brioches, strudel di mele, eclairs and more.
For the Italian rushing to work, he has perhaps 5 minutes of chit-chat with a neighbor while standing-up at the neighborhood bar, slurping down his espresso and cornetto in quick order before rushing out the door to work.
If you are staying at a B&B in Italy, by law they are only allowed to supply you with pre-packaged breakfasts pastries, toasts and biscuits.
A "Bar" in Italy is not like bars in the States. They are places to go for breakfast, espresso, pastries and for lunch they offer panini, small pizzas and focaccia... families with children are welcome. During the lunchtime "riposa", when most places (including restaurants in small towns) close for 2-3 hours, the local Bar is where you would stop for a quick lunch.
In Italy, one important tradition is completing the dinner with dried fruit and grapes. But the uva (grapes) represent something... according to tradition, having grapes on the table during New Year’s ensures that those sitting at the table will be wise and frugal spenders of money. This is based on the idea that one must exercise significant willpower in order to conserve grapes taken from the fall grape harvest without eating them until Capodanno (New Year's Day). This simple sacrifice means that through willpower, you will be wise and frugal during the coming year.
Every holiday season, my wife Lisa bakes. And bakes. And bakes. We've even made a special sign for our kitchen for these turbulent times... Translated, the sign says "Limited Traffic Zone, Mama Cooking". It's often tense when she's trying new recipes and techniques, so Lucas and I have learned to stay out of harms way. I mean, after all, there are many big chef's knives and large mattarelli (rolling pins) in our kitchen!
This year, we put the sign up again, knowing things might get a bit tense--Lisa was trying several new traditional Italian recipes. This time, she was making an authentic spiced cookie recipe: Mostaccioli. This cookie can be thought of as an Italian gingerbread. There are two basic types: one for forming and sculpting cookies shaped like animals, angels and the like; and the other, a diamond (or rhombus) shaped, chocolate coated cookie.
Oddly, in Italy, not many people make this cookie any longer, but buy them at Christmas in cellophane wrapped trays--factory made. Lisa wanted to make a traditional, authentic recipe... just like her Sicilian grandmother would have made back in Corleone, where it might have been called mustazzoli in local dialect.
Traditionally, Sicilians use either vino cotto or honey to make these cookies. Many others will use a mixture of honey and grape juice. Grape molasses is available in Middle Eastern grocery or specialty food stores, but Lisa simply used a good quality honey.
In this recipe, Lisa wanted a rustic bark texture, so she brushed on her melted chocolate. But if you want a more traditional, super-shiny coating, you'll need to learn how to properly temper your chocolate. Here's a great article by King Arthur Flour on tempering chocolate for a shiny coating.
With mostaccioli, you can either place the cookies on a cooling rack and pour the tempered chocolate over them using a large spoon, or using a small spatula or tongs you can dip your cookies into a bowl or measuring cup into your tempered chocolate.
I highly recommend leaving a couple of your Mostaccioli out for Babbo Natale along with a mug of cioccolata calda on Christmas Eve.
Chocolate Spicy Meatball (Biscotti)
1/3 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup cocoa
1/2 tsp. baking soda
3 tbsp. baking powder
5 cups flour
2 tsp. cinnamon
2 tsp. ground cloves
2 tsp. nutmeg
1 tsp. salt
1 cup chopped walnuts
3 cups (18 oz.) semi-sweet chocolate chips
3 eggs, slightly beaten
1/2 cup corn or canola oil
2/3 cup milk
Combine 2 cups confectioner's sugar, 1 tsp. vanilla extract and enough milk to make a thin (but not too thin) icing (approximately 2 tbsp.). Mix until smooth and drizzle over cooled cookies or dip tops of cookies into icing and let stand until dry.
Last year, our Leaning Tower of Pisa gingerbread project got an honorable mention from our local county competition. We knew we'd have to ratchet it up for this year, so we decided to build a the Roman Colosseum in gingerbread.
The first thing to decide is how to create the curves for the oval shape of the Colosseum's walls. Last year, we developed a technique to mold sections of gingerbread as soon as they come out of the oven a bit under-done... we formed the curved walls of the Pisa tower like this. But in this case, the Colosseum is oval with each section of wall at a different radius. I would have had to build large multi-sectioned forms to create the curved parts. Instead, considering the scale we were working in (on a 24" square base) we thought we would make the walls in sections and then cut them apart and mortar them back together with colored royal icing. OK, so we had a basic plan to approach the overall shape, but how about the details?
After some exhaustive research, I found architectural drawings of both the floor plan and the wall elevations and used Photoshop to scale them to fit our 24" square board onto which our Colosseum would be built. I had to make adjustments to the scale of certain elements of the plans first. Instead of 80 arches I cut it in half to 40, afraid that if I cut arches to scale out of the gingerbread, the narrow arches (they would have been less than 1/2" wide) might have closed up as the gingerbread baked. I also wanted larger arches so I could install something to represent the statues in each arch as it appeared in ancient times. We were going to use gummy bears for the statues.
It took some doing, scaling things up and down, taking lots of measurements and Photoshop work, then porting the resulting plans over to MS Publisher so I could print the plans out life size as tiled prints, which I taped back together. There were sets of prints that I used to make templates for walls and other elements, and other prints that I used to assemble a three dimensional paper model so I could figure out where specific elements needed to go or where I might have to tweak the scale a bit more (for instance, we shortened the inner wall a bit so our audience could more easily look into the arena to see the "Battle of the Colossus" we were planning to install.
After we had our templates cut out, we started to roll out gingerbread from a special recipe we use for construction--it's harder and spreads less than standard recipes. We used two batches: one with light corn syrup and one with dark corn syrup so we would have two slightly different colors of walls or elements to work with. (The real Colosseum has many different colors of earth tones on its facade).
Both my son Lucas and I worked on making the elements... cutting out arches, hand cutting special shapes, texturing the walls to look like brick and stone, and sawing apart wall sections to make the appearance of curved walls. As you can see in the photos above, we even developed a technique to pipe the gingerbread dough. We took balls of dough and wet them briefly under the faucet, then worked water into the dough until it got very slushy without being too wet--just slippery enough to be pumped out of a piping bag and pastry tip. It worked fantastically.
After about a week of research and another 3 days of baking and prepping wall sections and other elements, we filled three pizza boxes with all the gingerbread parts for our Colosseum and got to work assembling with only two days left before we had to present our creation...
Although we were entered into the "Authentic Reproduction of a Significant Structure" category, we wanted to add a bit of humorous element for the kids that would be viewing our Colosseum for 6 weeks during the holiday season. We decided to place two gladiator combatant Gingerbread Men in the arena styled after the "Gingy" character from the Shrek film franchise. We would have one tripping the other using a candy cane, and the other bopping a lollipop sucker over his head.
I wanted these to look animated, so I used foil to prop up parts of the arms, legs and heads during baking. A long bamboo skewer for support was baked into each gingerbread gladiator and would be hot glued into the plywood base of the arena.
I was originally going to sculpt a human form for our Sun God-Colossus statue, but thought it would be funnier to make him into a gingerbread man--except instead of bronze (I didn't have any bronze Luster Dust) I used modeling chocolate to sculpt a marble statue.
In the end, we were very satisfied with the results and won Second Place (with a decent cash prize and ribbon) for our efforts. I will admit to being frustrated and confused about not taking First Place over the poorly executed and not architecturally correct "Rockefeller Center Ice Skating Rink" that won the grand prize. We had put so many different techniques into ours and had built a nearly architecturally correct Colosseum, while the First Place winner had only flat panels of gingerbread and no architectural details at all (no gold statue of Prometheus?)
No matter, we're still proud of our effort this year!
What do you think?