Christmas in Italy is also a celebration in music and dance. Watch this cute little girl and just try not to smile... I challenge you...
Every year Lucas and I work on our Christmas project together... a Gingerbread House. We've done many types over the years... an Irish Cottage, Country Church, a Log Cabin, and one of our biggest--our own home, Buddleside. That was the biggest and heaviest to date Victorian roof pitches and wraparound porch... even down to our hammock (made out of Fruit Rollups hanging on the front porch). Last year, in honor of our Voyage in Italy, we build a Trullo, those pointy roofed houses in Puglia (see post HERE).
But even last year, before we decided on the Trullo design, we had another thought... to build a Gingerbread Leaning Tower of Pisa. Well, as you can see by the photo above, this year we decided to do it! I think we succeeded... I was pretty rough going, though. Of course, the obvious challenge is that it leans. Another main problem was how to construct--and bake--the curved tower sections. I researched covering a cardboard tube with gingerbread and leaving the tube inside. But I discovered that gingerbread sort of melts downward as you heat a tube sitting vertically in the oven. The other method is to lay the gingerbread covered tube on its side in the oven and turn it every minute or so as it bakes. We decided against this because attaching balconies would be a real hassle. The Leaning Tower has balconies on six levels. We decided to create cylinders alternating with round cookies to construct the tower.
The solution to forming the curved shapes was to make half-cylinders and then put two together to form each floor of the tower. Next was coming up with a jig that could cool the shaped pieces just as they came out of the oven.... without them cracking or sloughing off pieces. I created a rig out of a large wooden rolling pin attached to our large roasting pan. As we quickly found out, the gingerbread recipe that Lisa had prepared was too crumbly at first... which we fixed by adding a bit of boiling water and re-kneading. But then we found that would not hold together when draped over the rolling pin form immediately after baking. We needed a new recipe....
The recipe that worked was more fudge-like in texture. It molded well. It cut well. And most important, after baking (undercooking a bit) it molded to the cylinder form without cracking!
So, I baked up some half-cylinders, then the gingerbread rounds to act as each level's floor and balcony.I decided to bake the bottom level as one complete cylinder... molded over a cardboard and metal iced tea contained that I cut at the correct angle for the Tower's sunken foundation. I rolled out the gingerbread and then rolled it up around the tube. As it baked, I kept turning it--about ever 2 minutes, for 15 minutes. This kept it from melting down off the tube. Perfect!
Next I created the smaller parts: doors, hearts, angels and the arches and rings needed to create the campanile (bell tower)... after all, the Leaning Tower is actually a functioning bell tower. Ours was going to have bells!
We attached the first level with duct tape (inside the cylinder) to the plywood base. We then "glued" each level, one by one with royal icing, cutting offset holes in each round cookie to allow for the dowel. Lucas put a special candy inside each level that only he would know about. By the time we got to the top level, the dowel "just" made it... touching the side of the curved wall. Another 1/2" off would have been a disaster. All the levels were already "glued"! The campanile was the delicate part. It was all hands on deck to get this assembled and then lifted into position. It really was the crowing glory of the piece. Once it was up there, the thing really looked like the Leaning Tower!
Then it was the fun part... Lucas organized all the candy and we started decorating. The chocolate, foil wrapped bells up on top. The doors and angels. Gummy bears, M&Ms, Live Savers, jelly beans, peppermint swirls... The hardest part was attaching all the pretzel columns... we have about 1/3 as many as the real tower, but they still took us over an hour to do.
By the end, my hands were shaking and my fingers were cramped from pressing the stiff royal icing out of pastry bags for hours on end. The assembly and decorating pretty much took us an entire day.
It was worth it, though. We think it turned out to be one of our best. What do you all think?
Jerry, Lisa and Lucas Finzi... Merry Christmas--Buon Natale!
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Here's a quick way to use up the last of your Christmas Turkey... Zuppa di Tacchino con Acini di Pepe.
The soup is fairly basic: dice and saute some onion in olive oil, add cut up pieces of leftover turkey into pot, add diced carrots and celery, spice up with pepper, salt and two tablespoons of Italian Seasoning... After simmering for a hour or more ('til the veggies are tender) add some liquid smoke (3-4 good dashes), and finally about 1 and a half cups acini di pepe soup pasta (this is a small, cylindrical pasta similar to pastina). Stir for the first minute so the pasta doesn't stick together. Then heat until the pasta is tender.
If you added enough pasta, the soup takes on a very thick texture and is like a lazy man's risotto...
Serve with a couple of pieces of crusty, toasted bread and top off the soup with shards of your favorite cheese... this time I used a nutty Mahon.
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Watch how the two Italian-American grandmas love everything... the rest, well, you'll see...
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In English you might call it a Yule Log, in France it's called a Buche de Noel, but in Italy it's
il Tronchetto di Natale. Here is my version I made a few years ago for Christmas. They are really easier than you think to put together... a simple sponge cake (yellow or chocolate--your choice), a filling, some icing and lots of fun with the kids scraping with spoons and forks to you think it looks like a real log in an early winter's forest. The only technical part that needs some attention is learning how to rold the jellyroll cake. (There are many Youtube videos if you need help).
In my version, I added holly leaves made from fondant with berries and mushrooms made from marzipan. A dusting of decorative or confectioner's sugar for a light snowfall and you're transported into the Italian Alps. I've included a basic recipe to make your own. If you have kids, by all means include them, especially with the decorating and Lucas' favorite thing... licking the beater...
The slide show below will give you some other great decorating ideas....
Emma Morano who is Europe’s oldest person and the second-oldest in the world, recently marked her 116th birthday. She is the oldest verified Italian person ever and the last living European person to have been born in the 19th century. Morano reached her latest milestone on Sunday, November 29th in her one-bedroom apartment in Verbania, a small town in the Piedmont region of northwestern Italy.
"I’m fine and as long as it stays that way, I will remain with you,” she was quoted as saying. “If you like I can sing Parlami d’amore Mariù (Talk to me about love, Mariu).” In a vibrant mood, she added, "My singing voice used to stop men in their tracks!" After singing a bit in her weak voice, she admitted that her voice isn't as good as it used to be.
When asked about the secret to her long life, she gave her simple rules: never use drugs, eat three eggs a day, drink a glass of homemade brandy daily, have a chocolate now and then, and think positive. "For breakfast I eat biscuits with milk or water, then during the day I eat two eggs—one raw and one cooked—just like the doctor recommended when I was 20 years old (in 1919) and was anemic. For lunch I'll eat pasta and minced meat, then for dinner, I'll have just a glass of milk."
Sleep is another important factor in her longevity, going to bed before 7 each night and waking before 6am. Kicking her husband out of the house in 1938 (but staying legally married) is another factor she claims added to her long life. Morano is medication free and has been in good health for years.
Emma Martina Luigia Morano was born on 29 November 1899 in Civiasco, Vercelli, Piedmont, Italy to Giovanni Morano and Matilde Bresciani, the eldest of eight children, five daughters and three sons. When she was a child, she moved from the Sesia Valley to Ossola for her father's job, but the climate was so unhealthy there that a physician advised her family to live somewhere with a milder climate so she moved to Pallanza, on Lake Maggiore, where she still lives.
She had a long-lived family: her mother, an aunt and some of her siblings turned 90 and her sister, Angela Morano (1908–2011) died at 102. In October 1926, she married Giovanni Martinuzzi (1901–1978) and in 1937 her only child was born but died when he was only six months old. As is the custom in Italy, she retained her maiden name.
Until 1954, she was a worker for the Maioni Industry, a jute factory in her town. Then, she had another job, in the kitchen of "Collegio Santa Maria," a Marianist boarding school in Pallanza, until she was 75, when she retired.
Morano was still living alone in her home on her 116th birthday.
This video will delight you with her singing as well as her describing her diet... (In Italian)....
The rugged coast of the Cinque Terre is popular with hikers who love to walk from town to town in along this magical coastline in Northern Italy. Most think of Cinque Terra as a summertime destination, but it might be worth a visit during Christmastime for an unusual way to spend your Natale.
If you decide to go to Cinque Terre during the holidays, consider that most restaurants and hotels are seasonal. Rent a small apartment and live like the locals do during the Christmas season and you'll discover something very different indeed...
Presepe of Manarola
For instance, you will find the world's largest presepe (nativity display) in Manarola, clinging to one of the craggy hilltops overlooking the sea. Every year on December 8th (Feast of the Immaculate Conception, and the beginning of the Christmas season in Italy) the lights are flipped on and thousands gathered in the village cheer for this wonderful illumination. The evening is topped off by fireworks. The lights stay well into January or February (in the typical Italian style of timekeeping).
Mario Andreoli, a retired railway worker, started building the presepe in 1976 and has spent the decades covering the entire hilltop with illuminated shaped figures. In 2007 his creation was declared the largest nativity in the world by Guinness World Records. It has 6 miles of electric cables, 15,000 bulbs, 300 life sized figures, mostly made from recycled junk. It also went off the grid in 2008 with the addition of a dedicated solar powered electric system.
Christmas Star and Baby Jesus Born from the Sea in San Terenzo
Ok, now this one is really something different. In the beach town of San Terenzo (a well known scuba diving destination) every Christmas Eve, just before midnight, you will see a light glowing beyond the smoke bombs on the beach in the surf.... it's the Christmas Star emerging from the water! You will then also see a bevy of wetsuit-clad Magi greeting the star... and then a huge clam shell pops out of the water, opening up to reveal the newborn Baby Jesus, which the "Magi" carry ceremoniously toward the spectators.
The "beach people" chant the Prayer for the Diver (they have prayers for everything in Italy) just before carrying the Infant Jesus and his clam shell crib to the Church in preparation to Christmas’s Holy Midnight Mass. In every corner and street of San Terenzo, lights and decorations add to the magic and folklore, and thousands of candles shine bright in the streets. Only in Italy!