Treats

Almond Semolina Cookies

Almond Semolina Cookies- Life Love FoodAlmond Semolina Cookies- Life Love FoodAlmond Semolina Cookies- Life Love Food

“Why do you write about food?” People ask.
“Well,” I’d like to tell them, “sometimes I wonder the same thing. Let’s just say it’s complicated.”

Instead, I try to be confident, to give them a straight answer. I spit out a few words like ‘culture’ and ‘family’ amidst a vortex of phrases, but the actual train of thoughts, already blurred in my mind, often lacks any coherence. Were I prepared, or warned, or simply good at giving answers that feel lucid and well-pondered, I would reply in M.F. K. Fisher’s words. No one better than her has expressed the reasons why. In the foreword to The Gastronomical Me, she writes:

The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry. But there is more than that. It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the other.

Love and hunger are, evidently, what keeps me writing too. And yet, I often interrogate myself on how I can keep this passion of mine burning brightly like a cherry wood fire, year after year. How do you keep yourself close to the craft while also away from burnout? The question resurged last week, as I was making a batch of these almond semolina cookies for the third time in a row. The recipe belongs to Dorie Greenspan’s new book, which, being her twelfth, decrees her as one of the most prolific cookery authors of our time. How does she do it, I thought. How does she stay interested after so many years, and so many books?

The answer, unsurprisingly, came from Dorie herself. During an interview she gave not long ago, she mentioned how she started in the kitchen in the first place, and how she kept going. She began out of necessity, she said. And carried on because of the pleasure she felt in feeding others. Dorie has always been a baker, and despite winning a number of James Beard Awards for her craft, she still calls herself “a home baker”. A home baker who, with her cookies and cakes and pies and tarts, enjoys making others happy.

These two worlds – M.F.K Fisher’s  and Dorie Greenspan’s – so far apart in so many ways, collide in my mind as I stir eggs with flour and dollop dough on a baking sheet. Cooking, baking, writing, are connected by a feeling that, at the base, is humble and deeply human. Pleasurable, too, if we think of these as choices rather than chores. So, while I slip the first batch of cookies inside the hot oven, I remind myself: this is a choice. This is your choice. And it’s one that, if sustained by empathy and kindness and security, will keep acquiring new meanings as you go, learn, stumble and age.

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Venetian Frittelle for Carnival

Venetian Frittelle - Life Love Food


 For the first time this year, nonna decided not to whip up the traditional Carnival fry up. The daughters and sons, nieces and nephews and the whole extended family were left without her signature frittelle, favette and crostoli. Empty handed, they were all forced to buy them from the bakery instead.

The news popped up on my phone screen like breaking news. Outrage! How could this ever happen? I was told that, at the young age of 95, she was feeling too tired to roll doughs and stand in front of the frying pan for long hours. To make up for the loss, Aunt, who lives with her, picked up on the duty of making a small batch of fried tortelli stuffed with pumpkin and amaretti – another classic concoction in my family – in the attempt to still celebrate Carnival. This, of course, not without nonna’s vigilant surveillance. It was reported that she did very well indeed.

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Venetian Favette for Carnival

Venetian Favette for Carnival - Life Love Food

Carnival is to a Venetian what Halloween is to most people: the perfect occasion to wear fancy dresses, party all night, and eat a pile of sweet treats.

Many identify the Carnevale di Venezia with folks dressed in 18th-century masks who peacocking around St Mark’s Square. But that’s not all: there are parties for the youth of Veneto to let its hair down; all sorts of activities for children and families organised all over the city; and, most importantly, there is food.

At the core of the Venetian Carnival is a spirit of excess – of enjoyment of all sorts of mundane, sensual pleasures. Because it occurs right before Lent (the time of the year when Catholics are meant to give up all carnal temptations), Carnival is the perfect excuse to live life to the fullest before reverting to a more moderate lifestyle. Fasting and virtuous abstinence are just around the corner, so one might as well make the most of life before then.

Following the same spirit of excess, the traditional foods of the carnevale are some of the most decadent and scrumptious out there. Often sweet, coated in sugar, at times stuffed with custard and cream, they are almost always unmistakenly fried.

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Black Locust Flower Fritters (Frittelle di Acacia)

acacia_fritters_valerianecchio

I had almost forgotten how glorious springtime in Veneto can be. How warm the May sun can shine, and how pleasant it is to eat lunch outside with the white roses intertwined around the wooden pergola. How early strawberries ripen here, and how late the sun sets. I had almost forgotten how much I yearned for some proper spring weather in the past four years, despite the blooming magnolias and the dangling wisteria. I am reminded now, here, sitting at my old desk, the window wide open and a sweet scent of orange blossoms blowing from the garden.

Two weeks in my homeland and I’ve already fallen into some good old habits: munching on pan biscotto (some local sort of crunchy bread) while waiting for lunch; circling the house and the garden multiple times throughout the day in search for ideas; going for long walks turned into foraging expeditions; and drinking too much espresso, sometimes with a dash of grappa, too, usually on Sundays.

Whenever we go for walks together, Dad joins me in my foraging efforts, mostly because he loves weeds as much as I do. On our last trip, for instance, we found dandelion, nettle, and bruscandoli (wild hops), the holy trinity of Venetian wild edible plants. We picked two bagfuls in total, then proceeded to wash them and turn them into a huge skillet of stir-fried greens with pancetta, a nettle frittata, and a risotto with wild hops, which were still surprisingly tender and reminiscent of rosemary.

And now that the last of the young shoots and leaves have morphed into tough grown-ups, it’s time to pick edible wildflowers. Late spring is their moment. Florid bushy trees of elderflower (sambuco) and black locust (faux acacia or robinia) grow between parcels of land. Their branches have been heavy with flowers for weeks now – one can smell them before even seeing them. Black locust flowers – dangling clusters of tiny, intensely perfumed white flowers – are slowly coming to an end, though many trees are still in bloom. We have been picking basketfuls of flowers to fill every vase in the house, their beauty and sweetness a fleeting bliss before they fade and wither and bend, spent.

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Zabaione al Caffé

One of the first exchanges between Jesse and I on the night I landed in Sydney went something like this:

‘Did you bring the big moka pot?’
‘I had to leave it. My bag was overweight’
‘Oooh Val…’
‘Well, we have the little one that you brought…’
‘Mmm’

He wasn’t happy. For the first time in five years, we had to part with our 12-cups Italian stove top cafetière. It was one of the first things we bought together when we first moved into our little flat in Bra. It had travelled with us through Italy and then moved with us to London. It had come along on most of our trips – to France and the Basque Countries, to Croatia, to Mexico. Now, it was sitting in a box in my parents’ garage, wrapped in newspaper, mingled with other possessions of ours, catching the dust. We had to leave it behind in favour of a smaller and lighter 3-cups moka – a later addition to the family, suitable mostly to Sundays’ after lunch pick-me-ups, or sporadic after-dinner coffee cravings.

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