Baking

Pastiera Napoletana

The most fascinating side of an enlarged family is usually the one which lives far from the rest. My family is no exception. As a kid, among the whole lot of aunts and uncles all born and raised in Veneto, I have always been intrigued by that aunt who chose the alternative path, married a man from the South during her graduate years and left the native soil to follow him in his social and professional climbing.

They lived in Palermo, Reggio Clalabria, Naples, Udine, Varese, Florence and who knows where else in Italy. My aunt would follow her professional, upscale engineer husband wherever his career would take him without objection, even after the birth of their (only) daughter. They would show up sometimes at my grandma’s house for a weekend over Christmas or Easter or some other public holiday, have lunch with the rest of us, and then leave right after in their shiny new company car.

What was most striking was how much she had changed and moved on from her Venetian country origins. Far from using any dialect, her way of speaking had a strange inflection, a mixture of accents and local usages that made her even more singular before my eyes. She would discuss literature, philosophy, religion, art and music with her very puzzled mother and sister –all subjects that she probably had time to dig in her long days at home alone, with her husband away for work, pressured by the idea of pleasing him and be presentable at one of the many social events they had to attend.

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Coconut Loaf Cake

 There is a deep need for rest in these days. Rest from work, duties, manners, social constraints, voices, noises, people, crowds, rush hours, public transports, high streets. There is a deep need for empty, hilly streets at dusk, bird noises, a little apartment that smells of cinnamon and baking bread, a couch, some lit candles in every room and nothing else. A deep need for neutrality: no sound, no color. A deep need for inner peace and inner brightness when everything gets too dark too early.

I find myself longing for solitude, and pure emptiness. For much that I got to know and yes, to love this city, sometimes I ache, I feel overwhelmed, I find myself panting, reaching for fresh air and hidden corners. I try to close my eyes and blank my mind and I can see the task getting harder and harder. Am I alone in this? Am I the strange one, the outsider?

I find relief in my empty kitchen, in an empty afternoon when nobody is home and I can free myself completely. The simple gestures of gathering bowls and measuring cups, ingredients and notes, aligning them on the table, turning on the oven solace my bewildered mind. I think, not free from guilt, that I could do something else instead, perhaps something more suitable to my age or my current location. But I chase these thoughts as I focus on measuring the ingredients, on following cooking instructions. My mind blanks as I pursue my goal of simply baking something, anything, as long as it fills my mind with silence and keeps my hands busy.

A coconut loaf has been in my plans for months and I simply felt its moment had come. Its purity, its triune coconut-y essence, its perfect synthesis of flavors, its light colored nature donated comfort and warmth to a lonely, happily lonely, or w happily-in-two-maximum afternoon, a time when everybody writes, or naps, or reads and no small talk breaks this peace.


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Sweet Potato Pinza for All Saints

This sweet potato pinza is a typical Venetian cake consumed in occasion of Ognissanti, on November 1st. All Saints (Ognissanti) and the All Dead Souls (Giorno dei Morti) are still relatively hearth-felt festivities in the Italian tradition, and both are celebrated with rituals as much as traditional foods.

Both festivities seem to be of Celtic origin. For Celts, the new year began on November 1st, in correspondence with the end of the farming cycle. Divinities were called on earth to bless the new farming cycle and so, on the night between October 31st and November 1st, spirits would walk the earth, sharing with the living in this special time of the year.

When Christianity took over, the festivity of Samahain (from which Halloween originated) was turned into the Christian celebrations of All Saints and of All Dead Souls, while still maintaining the semblance of the original pagan cult.

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Muscat Grape Cake

Muscat Grape CakeMuscat Grape Cake

A grape cake has been at the forefront of my mind for a bit. A while back, I found some deeply flavoursome muscat grapes in a little greengrocer in our neighbourhood. Unable to resist – for they are not too easy to come by in London – I bought quite a lot and decided to bake with part of them. This gloriously purple, slightly messy thing you see pictured was the happy outcome.

The cake is lovely, and really quite simple. Even made with spelt flour, it is moist and beautifully perfumed. Perhaps the only less-than-perfect side is that the grapes tend to fall to the bottom – the batter is quite loose – making it more similar to an upside down cake than a, well, a coffee cake. I don’t mind it, but I should warn you in case you care about presentation…it might take some imagination, or, like in this case, hydrangeas.

Finally, a note on the grapes. Unfortunately, seedless grapes wouldn’t do the cake much justice. Best would be to use aromatic red varieties such as Muscat or Fragolino (Concord). White varieties like Chasselas or Sultana would work a charm, too, but they’ll all inevitably have seeds. If you don’t like the idea of crunchy seeds in your cake, perhaps try a different fruit altogether – all sorts of berries make a fine substitution.

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