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.
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.
The truth is, I am not a butter eater. In front of a loaf just out of the oven, I will reach for peppery olive oil and flaky salt. Butter can sit in my fridge, ignored, for months, until the baking itch attacks.
But since our last trip to Rome – where I ate my weight in gluten and dairy – I have been using that packet of butter surprisingly often. It was either melted into a puddle, mingled with anchovies and used to season pasta. Or eased in thin yet un-spread layers over toasted bread, and covered with whole, plump anchovies only seconds before the first bite. And anyway, as hazardous as this combination might sound, they are actually the perfect match – a classic case of opposites that attract each other.
Burro e alici (butter and anchovies) is a traditional Roman dish of poor origins, combining all the main nutrients in one simple and filling dish: fat from butter, proteins from the fish, and carbs from the bread or pasta. Cucina povera at its finest.
The bruschette are a very nice and quick option for aperitivo, especially if last minute. I like the butter to be in shavings that melt on their own over the warm bread, and whole anchovies for texture.
The pasta is not for the faint of heart, but I made it for an enthusiastic American who thought anchovies were the enemy only a couple of years ago. It has a strong, stubborn attitude, and attacks your nose with its fishy notes before you even taste the first forkful; but the sweetness of the butter will there, waiting to reward the brave hearts with its deeply satisfying lusciousness.
What do you do with day-old bread? Do you throw it away (I hope not), or perhaps freeze it? Maybe pulse it into breadcrumbs, or fry into fluffy French toast? Do you make croutons for soups and salads? I do all these things, but perhaps my favourite way to use stale bread is in Tuscan bread salad, or panzanella.
I suspect that each Italian household has a favourite way of making this salad. Rather than a recipe, then, the process of making panzanella follows a few simple rules. The most important thing for the success of panzanella is, first of all, the type of bread. The best for the scope would be unsalted Tuscan bread, as it holds its shape wonderfully after soaking, becoming wet but not soggy; though any good sourdough would do just fine.
To soak the bread, good wine vinegar and extra virgin olive oil are required – the oil for flavour and the vinegar to add a pleasant acidic note to the salad. Finally, the vegetables. In origin, before the advent of tomatoes, these only counted sliced onion, cucumber, torn basil, and other herbs such as wild rocket and purslane (as reported by Emiko). Tomatoes made their way into this salad in recent times only, though quickly gaining the role of key ingredient.
I’ve never been the best at presents, but I have, in time, become pretty skilled at edible presents, among which, this sesame brittle is one of the most popular.
Called croccante in Italian, it is a traditional Sicilian sweet, made especially during Christmas time. The name changes depending on the part of Sicily you stumble upon it: cubbaita in the East and giuggiulena in the West. I even found it to be called cubbaita di giuggiulena, combining the two words. Both are of Arabic origin (as Sicilian cuisine and culture have been deeply influenced by the Arabs): the former means ‘brittle’, the latter ‘sesame’. It is not uncommon to find this brittle on the stall of candy vendors in local fairs throughout the whole country, together with candied almonds, and marzipan/pistachio cookies. In fact, it was in such occasion (a local fair) that I came across it for the first time. It was love at first (sticky, crunchy) bite.