Happy new-ish year! Hope you had some lovely, peaceful, restful, glass-clinking, food-filled holidays. Ours were unusual: we spent a big chunk of them at the beach eating avocado on toast in true Aussie spirit while humming Frank Sinatra’s Christmas songs. Surreal.
And now, without even noticing, the holiday season is almonds gone. It was all so understated this year, I barely realised that today is 6th January. In Italy, we celebrated Epifania, the day when the three kings show up on the nativity scene, and also, the day when the Befana – the old witch who used to bring gifts to Italian kids before the whole Santa thing came up – descends into people’s fireplaces to fill up stockings. In my sock, I would find the simplest things –mandarins or clementines, a few sweets, perhaps colour pencils. It wasn’t as big of a deal as Christmas, but we all liked to keep the tradition alive.
As you might have grasped from the latest updates
, I am no longer in Veneto. A few things have changed since the last post
, mostly regarding the fact that I put a few miles between me and the homeland. Long story short, I am now in sunny Sydney.
The plan is to be here for a few months (more on that another time). Meanwhile, I am just enjoying the fact that I’m escaping winter and getting a double dose of summer instead. The seasonality change might twist things around a bit on these pages, mostly because this is meant to be a seasonal recipe journal, and what’s in season here now are lovely green peas and crisp asparagus. It feels a bit confusing, admittedly, so I’m trying to take things easy. For now, just to get into the groove of the holiday season and tune in with what’s happening in our respective home countries, Jesse and I have been baking quite a few autumnal delights. That, despite the fact that it’s very warm and sunny outside my window.
If I had to pick a sweet I am particularly fond of – and I am not fond of any sweets in particular – I would go for something creamy. Pannacotta, gelato, zabaione. Something where the airy texture can make up for the sweet punch.
It must be in my genes. The women in my family have never been great pastry chefs, yet they could always crack a good pudding. My mum’s mum, for example, was known for making the best zuppa inglese
in town, with layers of chocolate and marsala cream between cookies drunk with alchermès
. My mum for her part, although she has never been the most keen baker
, managed to pick up her mum’s crema
-making skills. So, whenever there is an occasion requiring un dolce
– something sweet – she would usually skip the baking altogether, and go for what she was well-known for in our family: tiramisù
. Such occasions were usually birthdays and the random ferragosto
dinner, which, being on 15th August, automatically called for a chilled dessert.
I made meringues for the first time.
I made them on a rainy, damp day. The egg whites didn’t get as fluffy as I hoped, and in their raw form, they looked more like melted marshmallow. I was already discouraged, but I thought to bake them anyway. I spooned the liquid, pearl-white, thick mixture into my muffin tins so that it would stay in place. I turned on the oven at the suggested temperature. I waited. And to my big surprise, I saw them growing rapidly inside their beds. They grew and formed mushroom tops that became increasingly golden and firm. I removed them from the oven with a mixture of fear and hope. I thought they were too pretty to be true, and that given how it all began, they would collapse as soon as they were out.
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.