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.
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.
Stand-up, Order, Slurp and Go
A friendly, neighborhood, Italian bar
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.
Selections of pastries at a bar in Rome
Voyage Tips: 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.
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.
The origins of Mostaccioli are thought to be Arabic and were made during ancient Roman times (called mustaceum in Latin) using grape must. The "must" or "most" part of the name is derived from the use of grape must, the byproduct of the pressing of grapes in the making of wine. Vino cotto--a molasses like syrup, made from boiling down the grape must until it is thick--is a natural sweetener that has been around long before sugar was introduced to the Mediterranean region.
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.
5--6cupsall purpose flour (leave 1/2 cup out to adjust dough stickiness)
2/3 cupunsweetened cocoa powder
1poundcoarsely ground raw almonds (about3-1/2 cups). Leave some nutty texture.
6eggsroom temperature (IMPORTANT: leave the eggs out of the fridge for 30 minutes before using)
zest of 3 oranges
juice of 1 orange
1teaspoonpure vanilla extract
High quality semi-sweet or dark chocolate for the glaze
Cutting the rhombus/diamond shapes with a bench scraper
Preheat oven to 350° F.
In a large bowl, sift or whisk together dry ingredients. (flour, baking powder, cloves, cinnamon, and cocoa).
Add ground almonds and incorporate with the dry ingredients.
Next, place sugar and the eggs into the bowl of a stand mixer with whisk attachment installed, and beat the eggs for 3 minutes until thickened.
Add the honey into the same mixing bowl and continue to whisk until well blended.
Add orange zest, juice and extract.
Remove the whisk and replace with a paddle attachment. Add flour/almond mixture until just combined. (Dough will be soft and sticky).
Place the dough onto a floured work surface and adding a little bit of flour at a time, knead the dough until you have a dough that is barely sticky. It should not be totally dry, but you don't want it wet.
Wrap the dough ball with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator for 1 hour, or as long as overnight if you want to bake the next day.
Line half sheet pans (this recipe might require 3-4 pans) with parchment paper.
Working with dough in small batches, place on well-floured wooden board and roll out to 3/8" - 1/2" thick. If necessary, dust a bit more flour on your dough and work it in until the dough has lost any stickiness. A stick dough will be nearly impossible to roll out.
Using a long chef's knife, pizza cutter or a bench scraper, cut the dough into diamond shapes, then carefully transfer onto a half sheet pan covered with parchment paper. Use a small spatula to lift and move each cookie to prevent messing up their geometric shape. You should leave about 1/2" space between your cookies--this dough doesn't spread much at all.
Gather the odd leftover pieces and reform into the next batch for rolling and cutting.
Continue rolling and cutting your cookies until you run out of dough.
Bake at 350° F for about 15-18 minutes. Bake for less time if you want a softer cookie, a little longer if you like cookies with a harder bite.
Let cool completely before glazing with chocolate.
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.
Ingredients 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 Directions
Preheat oven to 350 F.
In a large bowl, mix together the granulated sugar, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, flour, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, salt. Stir in walnuts and chocolate chips.
In a separate bowl combine eggs, oil and milk.
Add egg mixture to dry ingredients and mix together until a firm dough is formed. Start mixing with the spoon, but then knead with your hands to incorporate the ingredients. With lightly oiled hands, roll dough into walnut-sized balls 1" to 1-1/2" in diameter.
Place on greased cookie sheet and bake 10 to 12 minutes; let cool 3 to 5 minutes, then place on wire racks to cool completely.
Icing 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.
We had reference photos of the real Colosseum tacked up all around the kitchen as we worked
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?
Playing with the 3-D paper model until we were sure everything would fit together
We used lego parts for some cutter shapes and textures, cleaning up cuts with a paring knife or razor blades
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.
Piping details with gingerbread ensured that details wouldn't break off, as is possible when using royal icing
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.
A section of outer wall, textured and sectioned (two arches wide for each panel) ready to go into the oven.
A section of inner wall cooled down and cut apart using a carpenter's dovetail saw.
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...
Lucas working on the brick texture and details
Starting the assembly
Using a microplane zester/grater to fine tune the fit of wall sections
One detailed wall section (photo above) where the (real) Colosseum was reinforced with a thick support wall. The columns are "Stix" brand snacks dusted with pearl dust to tone down their yellowish color. This section was two walls thick and nearly bubbled up during baking.
We created Roman "Lollipop" pine trees using large pretzel rods and cookie/chocolate crumble.
Creating the Gladiator "Gingy" characters
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.
Many might not realize that there was a huge, 100 foot tall bronze statue of Nero at the site of the Colosseum before it was built. After Nero spent Rome into disaster, Flavian built the amphitheater for the people of Rome and in doing so, moved the statue of Nero to one side of the arena, changed the head to the Sun God with a crown of rays. The statue was known as the Colossus and eventually the people started calling the Flavian Amphitheater (its original name) simply the "Colosseum".
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?
Our "Gingy" Gladiators doing battle, while penguin citizens enjoy the show
Gummy bear statuary
Detail of one of the inner walls
Exterior with piped Christmas trees over inverted ice cream cones, chocolate stones and lentils for the paths
We decided on using penguin gummies for the audience
360 degrees of details captured from Google Earth and pasted together for reference in Photoshop
Each year, we create a gingerbread house with last year being our first time in a local competition. (We received an Honorable Mention for our Gingerbread Leaning Tower of Pisa). But Lucas, Lisa and I have a real challenge ahead of us this year... a project we've wanted to do for the last three years: The Roman Colosseum!
This past week we started planning it, and are coming to the realization that this will be one of the most challenging creations to date. As an inspiration, we've been looking all over Google, Pinterest and You Tube for other Colosseum gingerbread and cake creations. It's going to be a tough project for sure.
Here's two of the better cakes we found that blew us away, even though they are partial scenes of the Colosseum. We love the amazing details done in modeling chocolate...
Have a party to plan for? How about making a bunch of Pizzette--tiny pizzas? They are simple to prepare. Just use any pizza dough recipe, use a round cookie cutter (or a glass) to cut out the small rounds, top with sauce and other favorite toppings (make a lot plain and pepperoni for the kids) and pop them in the oven on large, dark colored sheet pans oiled with light olive oil. Keep a little space between each one. Bake in a preheated 475F oven for 5-7 minutes, or until both the top and bottoms are done.
These little pizzas holdover well. You can make quite a large batch (for a school or church event, for example) and they can even be served Italian style, at room temperature.
We decided that we were going to pick up supplies to cook with tonight after our trip to Florence and Fiesole. We tried to look for signs for a Coop supermarket or an alimentari (grocery store), but no signs and the only alimentari on the way back to Mormoraia was closed (at 5pm on a Saturday afternoon?), so we pulled on the side of the road and asked our GPS (Tommy) where the nearest one was. Niente closer that 20 miles... at least that's what he says. I don't trust him totally. After all, besides sounding a bit robotic, his accent is pure American! How much can he possibly know about local shops? He's just a tourist--just like us!
So I figured that nearby San Gimignano must have an alimentari outside the historic walls... so we set course... 8 minutes away. We found one! A nice one too. Paper towels to use as napkins, cleanup and to clear my clay dusted rear window... eggs... sliced tachina (turkey)... brasciola (very thin sliced salt cured beef)... little tomatoes... onion... snacks... drinks...butter... half loaf of bread. We were set for dinner and breakfast--or so we thought.
Another side hassle was that we were so chatty with the prospect of a home cooked meal combined with our friend Tommy not calling out turns for some reason as he usually does... we kept missing the turn-off out of town--four times! Sigh. (Our family travel theme song, to the tune of Beach Boys, I Get Around: "Turn, Turn Turn around, I turn around... Turn around, ooh..ooh...oooo... I turn around... I'm gettin' bugged drivin' up and down the same old street...")
Back at our agriturismo apartment, we hunted for basics in our cucina cupboards. There were no staples typically found in these apartment or house rentals... salt, pepper, foil, spices, coffee, sugar, etc. So this meant that problem-solving Babbo (Daddy) had to fix this somehow--and we were not going to pay the 50 Euro per person for dinner in Agriturismo Mormoraia's little cafe downstairs!
OK... boil water... cook bird's nest pasta we bought... frying pan... butter... slice up the brasciola (salty enough) into the pan. Lucas, sliced those little tomatoes and tossed them in... add some wine... reduce sauce... toss in a bowl and grate little piece of leftover pecorino cheese we had two days ago... butter the unsalted regional bread... pour the rest of the wine... and Presto! My new recipe... Pasta Pomodoro e Brasciola alla Babbo!
Lisa and Lucas said it was one of the best meals here so far. Bravo, Babbo! On another morning I made a down and dirty frittata with the little we had in our Mormoraia pantry. Buono gusto!
Eggs are sold in plastic cases... with bar codes on each egg.
No bare hands! Wear plastic gloves to handle produce in supermarkets
Nothing special... Just a typical display in a local alimenari!
Getting used to Shopping in Italy
At times we bought food at the large supermarkets, which had great cheese displays, not so decent breads, un-refrigerated milk in cartons (none cold), but lots and lots of produce. The fruits and veggies were very good for supermarkets, but the tomatoes disappointed me. They seem to be selling a lot of hybrid hothouse grown tomatoes (like "Tomatoes on the Vine" in the U.S.). Decent quality, but not organic, fresh picked or heirloom varieties. (As it turns out, Italians use SO MANY tomatoes in their diet, factory farmed tomatoes are the norm, although smaller markets may have Heirloom types).
Great cheeses were something we could get anywhere--supermarket or alimentari. Amazing. Cacciacavalo became our favorite... a dumbbell shaped cheese with mellow, nutty flavor which went with everything. Any type of aged Pecorino was a close second. One of my favorite things became the millefiore honey... thick as jam and incredibly delicious on bread in the morning. It was also great with ricotta. (I was never really a fan of American style honey.)
Lisa also fell in love with making coffee (espresso, scusa me) in those little Moka pots. I'm sure Santa will leave one under the tree for her. I wish I had access to a pizza oven while in Italy. I would have loved to make pizza there... but heck, I discovered that I make pizza better than we had in most of Italy anyway.
Cooking for ourselves in Italy became one of our favorite things, although Lucas always liked eating out in a new ristorante no matter where we were. Personally, I think he was starting to realize that if we ate out, he was guaranteed a visit to a gelateria afterwards!
Cucina--the Kitchen: Here is where you will find classic Italian recipes, our own family recipes, and stories about the history, techniques, tools and ingredients used in Italian cuisine. We will also include articles that will help you shop and cook in Italy. We are currently re-building our pages, so bear with us. If you can't find a recipe here, use the search (Ricerca) box and you will find what you need. Ciao.