It’s the time of abundance. When green leaves burst open, and glorious artichokes, peas, fave and asparagus make their way from the fields to local markets, from market crates to pantry shelves, and ultimately to the kitchen table. Did I forget to mention the wild garlic known as “aglio orsino” (translated from Italian meaning ‘bear’s garlic’)? If you go for a walk in the hills or even in your local park, you just might still find some, complete with beautiful white blossoms.
I’m in heaven in the kitchen at the moment, experimenting with new flavors and textures. Mostly I am feeling exhilarated and filled with new ideas brought about by a recent visit to the Veneto. This is truly the place I can call home, the place where my heart lives.
I promise to post a recipe soon for oven-baked white asparagus on top of smashed lemon and garlic new potatoes. This is a dish I created a few days ago, which still needs a bit more work on some specifics in preparation. Although this recipe just might be an innovation that not everyone in my extended family in the Veneto countryside will agree with . . . . . . asparagus are absolutely delicious when blanching or boiling is replaced with quick, warm oven heat!
Meanwhile I will take temporary leave from this diary, by posting an image I hope both captures and inspires a deep-rooted appreciation for simple, pure and fresh ingredients.
I am telling the truth when I say that I have been trying to find the time to write a few recipes involving figs and grapes for an entire passing of seasons. And yes I do mean it’s been more than a year. . .
The thing is, a long time ago I had a Saturday market stall in Haarlem where I sold handmade Italian-inspired fresh pasta, focaccia, bread, tart, biscotti and a myriad of vegetable-focused dishes. Two creations from way back then have been on my recipe-writing-to-do list, namely, a fig honey-cinnamon crostata and fresh fig and pepper and rosemary focaccia.
Fast forward to many years later and the recipe I am about to share. Food and cooking are ever changing, a reflection of life itself, after all. Always in search of learning opportunities through the words of historians and food writers, I discovered the inspired work of @emikodavies when reading her first book Florentine from front to back. This is where I first learned about the “schiacciata’all’uva”, the famous soft, pillowy Tuscan bread made with the purple grapes of the fall harvest.
I have made her beautiful recipe a number of times in a professional setting minus the Tuscan grapes, replacing them with local Dutch fruit instead. I’m happy to report the result has been well appreciated! Over time a personalized recipe has evolved, both a combination of my market day memories as well as inspiration from Emiko’s Florentine . . . a cookbook you simply must have in your collection!
Below, proof that I have finally put a recipe to rest in a wintery version of combined flavors and memories, where dried figs complement dark grapes and rosemary. Rather than sea salt, this particular focaccia involves a sugared topping!
Do try it to celebrate or or simply because it is delicious! Meanwhile, be well, be happy and enjoy the good life with your loved ones from the warmth of the kitchen table!
500 grams of fine wheat flour . preferably local and organic
4 grams dried yeast
375 ml warm water
25 ml extra virgin olive oil
freshly chopped rosemary leaves
from 2 full sprigs, roughly a full tablespoon
1 teaspoon coarse black pepper
1/2 teaspoon pink pepper corns
1 teaspoon sea salt flakes
the zest of one organic orange
200 grams dried figs, sliced
400 grams local purple grapes
For the topping
1-2 tablespoons local honey
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Measure tepid water in a canister and add the dried yeast. Stir the two ingredients with a whisk until the yeast dissolves. Set it aside for a half an hour. Meanwhile sift the flour into a bowl large enough to allow you to add and mix the water-yeast mixture easily. Wash the grapes and remove their stems. Slice the dried figs, removing their stem first. Pick the rosemary leaves and chop the leaves coarsely with a sharp knife, making sure not to bruise the leaves. Scrub the orange under warm running water. Grate the peel with a zester. Measure the black pepper, crushed pink pepper corns, sea salt flakes, finely chopped rosemary and orange zest. Add the ingredients to the flour.
Prepare a ceramic or stainless steel bowl large enough to contain the rising dough by rubbing in the sides and bottom with 25ml extra virgin olive oil and set aside.
Now pour 25ml extra virgin olive oil into the water-yeast mixture with a whisk. Make a well at the bottom of the bowl filled with flour. Then pour the water into the well in a steady stream, while stirring it with your fingers or with a wooden spoon. Continue to stir the ingredients about five minutes until a loose, smooth dough is formed, keeping in mind that at this stage, it will be fairly wet and sticky. As it rises, it will become very light and fluffy and when the bread bakes, it will be lovely and soft.
For now, coax the dough into the bowl rubbed in with olive oil. Cover it with a clean tea towel and let the dough rise 2-3 hours in a warm and cosy place. Meanwhile, prepare a flat oven tray by covering the bottom with parchment paper. Rub in the paper with some olive oil. Once the dough has had time to rise, preheat the oven to 190 degrees Celsius. Pour the dough onto the tray and spread it out evenly with both hands. Then press your fingers gently into the dough to create a dimpled pattern.
Arrange the sliced figs and purple grapes evenly over the top of the focaccia; then drizzle the surface with with 1-2 tablespoons of honey (or sugar) and an equal amount of extra virgin olive oil. Bake the focaccia 20-25 minutes, or until the grapes have burst open and the crust is golden. Remove the focaccia from the oven and allow it to cool a few minutes before digging in!
Serve this sweet and savory bread warm with a small dipping bowl of your best olive oil and sea salt flakes. I love to bring it to the table with a platter of blood orange wedges and crisp, raw fennel wedges.
This bread is delicious on its own. But it definitely pairs well with fresh cheeses like burrata, mozzarella, Taleggio or stracchino.
When I think of Vicenza, I think of Andrea Palladio, and of countless hours spent sitting on the worn marble steps of the Basilica on the Piazza dei Signori. I think of long walks up the steep hill to Monte Berico and of staring dreamily at the river Arno as it winds around the city. I think of grilled polenta, of spicy-sweet mostarda and of baccalà alla Vicentina. I envision the smell of roasted chestnuts sold on street corners in winter; and of eating thick wedges of ice cold watermelon in the park while fighting off mosquitoes on humid summer nights …
This narrative might lead one to believe that the study of food and its origins has always been my focus. Truthfully, I consistently had my head in the clouds. Growing up in the entroterra of the Veneto was the perfect fertile ground for a romanticists’ view of the world. Wandering through the streets of Vicenza and Venice, my thoughts were filled with poetry, literature, art, architecture and a jumble of lofty ideas.
As a teenager, I accepted the culture of food in my surroundings very matter-of-factly. I recognized cooking as an integral part of the daily ritual of life, seeing it as a detail in the vibrant canvas of Italian life. The beauty of food and the moving stories it tells became apparent to me much later, when I recognized the emotional thread it had sewn so steadfastly in my life experience.
Just what does this have to do with cooking something that actually can be set on the table you might ask? Well, this long and winding narrative is two-fold in its purpose. Firstly, this post marks the introduction to a blog series entitled “The Veneto Diaries”. This collection starts with a recipe that reflects the historical influence of Venezia and the Adriatic Sea; so visible in the culinary traditions of Vicenza and the Vicentino love of fish.
Secondly, this publication marks the second in a blog collaboration with Tina Prestia, founded upon a shared passion for Venezia, for the Italian way of life, and especially for cicchetti ( known as spuncioti in the place I call home). I invite you to read Tina’s beautiful writing on the subject. Her blog post provides a remarkably detailed description of a wide variety of easily accessible ingredients, which you can utilize to make your own cicchetti party at home, while dreaming of traveling to Venice of course!
Meanwhile, I am happy to present the recipes that resulted from an elaborate study of the “in saor” technique, a constant source of fascination because I love all things that are pickled! Saor is the Venetian word for “flavor” and the Hebrew word for yeast. The in saor method is firmly grounded in the history of Venice and its surroundings, rooted in the importance of preserving fish in a place dominated by the sea. It involves the preparation of a warm vinegar bath paired with onions, which is used to marinate fresh fish anywhere from twelve hours up to five days! The mix of sweet and sour is a true classic, to be found in many different types of foods served in osterie not only in Vicenza, but in many other parts of the seven provinces of the Veneto.
The in saor method forms the perfect basis for pickling aubergine, pumpkin and beets. However, the use of this marinade for vegetables (at least by this particular name), is not as iconic as the use of vinegar to preserve and flavor freshly fried fish. The in saor method is comparable to yet another pickling tradition very popular in this region, known the name giardiniera. This method will be the subject for a future blog post, where the earthy vegetables mentioned above will take a prominent part.
The following recipes are inspired by the book “A Tola Co I Nostri Veci . La Cucina Veneziana”, written by Mariù Salvatori de Zuliani in Venetian dialect in 1971. In her book, I found not just one, but nine variations of the in saor preparation technique! While sardines in saor are most famous, Mariù ensures her reader that any fresh fish, including all types of flat fish from the sole family, as well as mackerel, and even sweet water fish from the Soligo river of Treviso work perfectly.
She is very flexible as regards the type of fish used, as long as it is very fresh. In her shorthand style recipes, she even mentions that sardines (which are most definitely the icon of in saor preparations) should be caught at sunrise, and prepared immediately if not sooner. Mariù is also adamant about the importance of marinating the fish long enough. After testing two of her recipes I most definitely agree; each in saor marinade mellows over time, giving the simple ingredients used a subtle and delicately irresistible flavor.
In the following recipes, I chose to utilize the fish that was fresh and available locally in the Netherlands, where I currently reside. Sardines were unfortunately not to be found at the market, so I chose fresh sole when making the classic recipe below. I am sure that sole can easily be replaced by flounder, sweet water trout, fresh cod or any other locally available fresh white fish. Shellfish are also sometimes used to make an in saor, so feel free to use scallops, langoustines or gamba’s.
Ingredients for Sole In Saor . as inspired by the recipe 127 Sardele in “saor” (ricetta classica) from “A Tola Co I Nostri Veci”
2 fresh sole . cleaned from the bone approximately 250 grams in weight
250 ml white wine vinegar
125 ml dry white wine
two red onions or shallots . approximately 250 grams
100 ml sun flower oil
25-50 ml extra olive oil
30 grams soft wheat flour
30 grams of raisins
Descale and behead the fish, then fillet the fish leaving the skin on, or ask your fish monger to do so. Rinse the fillets in cold water and pat them dry on both sides. Sprinkle the fish with salt, and dust it on both sides with flour. Meanwhile preheat the sunflower oil in a skillet to 175 degrees Celsius. Once the oil is hot, fry the fillets on both sides a few minutes until the skin is pale and golden. Although not traditional, allow the fried fish to cool, before removing the skin. Set the sole aside.
Meanwhile peel the onions or shallots, if using. (I like to use red onions as I love the color contrast it gives to the dish). Slice the onions paper thin with a sharp knife or with a mandolin. Fry them briefly until golden and translucent in the oil used to fry the fish. Alternatively, fry the onions in a separate skillet with extra virgin olive oil, which I preferred to do. Add the vinegar and wine to the golden onions and bring the vinegar bath to a boil, then turn off the heat. Although raisins are usually reserved for the winter months, I chose to add a generous tablespoon to the onion and vinegar mixture, as it sweetens the vinegar and truly complements the dish.
While the onions are still warm, prepare the sole as follows. Place the fish and the onion-raisin marinade in even layers in a glass, enamel or terracotta casserole, making sure the fish is well covered. Refrigerate the sole in saor at least three days. Mariù is very emphatic about the importance of time passing in the process of making this dish, and I must say I agree with her! Serve the marinated sole chilled, perhaps with some toasted baguette and a nice glass of white wine, as part of a shared table dinner, or take it on a picnic, as is traditional in Venice on July 15th!
Ingredients for Baby Octopus and Local Brown Shrimp . as inspired by recipe 101 . “pesse in saor co’l vin bianco (maniera dalmata)
250 baby octopus
150 grams brown shrimp (or langoustines) . shelled and cleaned
200 ml white wine
75 ml white wine vinegar
75 ml water
3 bay leaves
250 grams red onion or shallots
one carrot . approximately 100 grams in weight
4 sprigs of flat leaf
Freshly ground black pepper
This recipe variation came as a surprise. If asked to choose, Mariù explains in her uniquely individual telegram-style of recipe writing, that although this recipe is common in Venice, it originates from Dalmazia (known today as Croatia). Here, once again, sardines are mentioned as the most traditional fish to be used; but sole, mackerel or any other type of fresh fish is more than acceptable. I chose baby octopus and brown shrimp, because they looked the best the day I went to the fish market. However, I am certain that any small white fish, as well as scallops and even fresh tuna would work perfectly too.
Prepare this recipe by gathering the vegetables and aromatics as follows. Peel the onions and slice them paper thin. Wash and peel the carrot, peeling, then slice it into thin coins. Wash the flat leaf parsley and bay leaves.
Place the the wine, water and vinegar in a sauce pan and bring it to a boil. Add the onion, carrot, parsley and bay leaves. Add a teaspoon of sea salt and a few pepper corns to the pan, then cook the ingredients ten minutes. Add the baby octopus and shrimp to the hot marinade, then turn off the heat. Pour the warm vinegar bath along with the fish into a glass, enamel or terracotta container. Once cooled, cover the dish well and store it in the refrigerator. Allow the flavors to marinate and mingle at least 24 hours before serving.
It is absolutely delicious, especially with a cold glass of bubbling Prosecco. This story is to be continued! Meanwhile, buon appetito!
I took the early morning train from Vicenza to Venezia almost every Saturday as a teenager. On my way to my favorite destination, I stared out the window, hoping to capture the Renaissance villas hidden by the misty hills of Vicenza with my 35mm camera. Traveling towards Venezia Santa Lucia I jotted down my thoughts in green ink on the pages of handmade paper notebooks and dreamt of becoming a writer.
The trip seemed to last just minutes and I was inevitably caught by surprise when the train jolted to a halt at the bustling station of my journey’s end. Vicenza was my home town and Venice was my getaway. To this day, the Veneto shapes the background to my love of Italy, which in turn gives form to my life story.
As a foreigner growing up in Vicenza, I loved to find myself in the midst of diligent tourists gathered together from all parts of the world, cluttering the streets and waterways of Venice. The steps of the stazione were the perfect location for brief multi-lingual exchanges with questioning travelers. My shy suggestions given to inquisitive tourists on how to escape the mainstream, were a fleeting and seemingly predestined introduction to my arrival at a place that simply represented a second home to me.
After taking my time to observe the morning situation on the water’s edge, just long enough to soak up the salty Venetian air, I maneuvered my way quickly through the crowds filling up the main streets in the direction of the Piazza San Marco. I crossed over the Canal Grande at the famous Ponte Rialto, ignoring the stalls filled with souvenirs along the way. Beyond the Rialto’s marble steps was the threshold to my favorite neighborhood in Venice, the Sestiere San Polo.
Passing through the Campo S. Giacomo di Rialto, my pace would slow as I reached the Erbaria fruit and vegetable market, where I listened to conversations among Venetians on how to cook local artichokes or radicchio. My 35mm camera was put to good use, capturing stacked crates of every seasonal vegetable imaginable, from the beautiful cranberry colored borlotti of the late summer, to white asparagus and peas in the spring. At the Campo della Pescaria, sturdy tables were filled with an abundance of fresh fish, protected by the loggia built to protect this magnificent open air market.
I believe that not only my love of cooking but of vegetable markets was born during my weekend trips back and forth from Vicenza to Venezia. The Veneto is as I often say, where my heart lives; it is truly the place I feel most happy and at home. When I can, I travel to the Veneto from the Netherlands, where I have lived for many years. My very first destination when traveling to Italy, is Vicenza of course.
While my life story is intertwined with countless wanderings through the streets of Venice, I feel the greatest affinity with the entroterra of the Veneto. The beautiful word entroterra translates from Italian as ‘inland’; it can however also mean ‘interior’ or ‘outback’. With a short stretch of the imagination, this word implies the vast countryside to the west of Venice. Historically intertwined with La Serenissima, the inland regions of the Veneto are beauties in themselves.
Time flew by as if in a dream, as I wandered in awe from market stall to market stall. Careless of getting lost in the winding streets built on an ancient world, unplanned discovery was made of colorful fruttivendoli storefronts (the Italian name for the green grocers), of pasticcerie (pastry shops) and of glorious panifici (bakeries). Lost in the beauty of the moment, the chime of the midday church bells served as a reminder that the time for a Venetian pranzo had arrived.
I casually navigated my way back to Santa Lucia station, prolonging my travels just a few more delicious hours before making my way back to Vicenza. Traveling in the general direction of home, I was happily distracted by the perfume of cooking, coming from home kitchens and of course, from the “bacari” dotting the San Polo “sestiere”. It was here I discovered cicchetti, Venetian dialect for “small bites”.
At the time I made no distinction between Venezia and Vicenza and its mutually shared ritual of sharing food with a Prosecco or a Spritz in the late afternoon. Immersed in the vita quotidiana (daily life) of the Veneto, it wasn’t in a name but in a common custom that I associated the activity of gathering together informally in and around the main squares of the region, in the shadow of church towers or the statue of the lion of San Marco, the symbol of the Venetian republic.
. History and the stories it tells .
Rivers of ink have flowed in the writing of books about Venice, the most famous city of the Veneto. It goes without saying that library shelves are filled with the fascinating history of this magical city. Art and architecture, language and culture, politics and intrigue and the flux of people’s and culture most definitely converge on this city floating on water. I know I will never tire of reading and learning about this part of the world.
Since human history is told with food stories, so too is the narrative of Venice. One of the things that fascinates me the most, is the origin of ingredients and the convergence of worlds and flavors that can be traced in the food traditions of the Veneto. While my desk has been stacked in the last few years not only with cookbooks, but with volumes of history, art and even novels about this part of the world, I am not quite ready to write a scholar’s history of food. That being said, the winding road of learning and experience will always lead back to the Veneto. In this introduction to a new blog category entitled “The Veneto Diaries” I sketch a personal story, the only one I can tell with certainty.
. About Vicenza .
The Basilica Palladiana of Vicenza, located on the Piazza dei Signori is surrounded with osterie, cantine (both words for tavern or pub) and even locali, which I loosely translate as ‘place’. In the shadow of its symmetric archways; spilling out from its ground floor; and spread out along its copper rooftop, the Basilica is alive with activity at all hours of the day. Standing in awe of the view from this Piazza, I can almost hear the echo of life lived here through the centuries.
Anytime after ten or so, empty cups of espresso and cappuccino make way for another kind of refreshment. Brightly colored Spritz cocktails, made with mineral water or a splash of Prosecco catch the eye of the passersby, as friends and family gather at the bar counters and small tables around the main square (not to mention throughout the city). In the late afternoon, between four and seven or so, the bustle of work is traded in for conversation. The famous bacari of Venice are called osterie here. Huddled for cover under the roof of the Basilica in winter, and spilling over onto the Piazza when the season permits, every gathering is an opportunity to share food. And as a good friend of mine says, people from the Veneto like to drink wine, so why not pair it with food?
. What’s in a name .
In Vicenza and surrounding area Venetian cicchetti generally go by a different name. While some places in Vicenza will call their food creations cicchetti, it is generally agreed that this word originates from Venice. The same custom however, flourishes not only in Venice, but in the cities of Padova, Vicenza and Treviso.
In the Veneto dialect, the Italian verb pungere (which translates as ‘to sting’ or ‘to bite’) is called spunciar. The reference to a bite or a sting is a metaphor for something small to eat, the traditional companion to a glass of wine. What goes by the name of cichetto in Venice, is known as a spuncio, spuncetto, spuncione or spunciotto in the surrounding areas of Vicenza and Padova. It is also interesting to note that a spuncio implies a type of food that can be enjoyed without a plate or a fork.
Whether in the form of milk bread tartines, grilled polenta crostini, or in the shape of thinly sliced local salame sopressa or wedges of Asiago cheese, spuncioti are to be found in a wide variety of flavors. People from Vicenza and surrounding area consider themselves down-to-earth and practical, so their spunci are rustic, homestyle foods connected to the traditions of their countryside.
The influence of Venice and the Adriatic Sea are reflected in the Vicentino love for fish. Almost every osteria, or even the more sophisticated style enoteca wine bars in and around Vicenza, will make an assortment of fish-focused spuncioti. The iconic ingredient baccala is essential, and just one of the things Vicenza happens to be famous for.
Just as in Venice, the ritual of wandering from place to place to talk and taste while enjoying drinks is a popular pastime. In Vicenza and the surrounding area, it goes by the expression andare per osterie, which translates roughly as ‘going to taverns’.
. Making Friends and a Blog Collaboration .
Faraway friends are made through food, and this is how I became friends with Tina Prestia; an expert in the making of fresh pasta, food writer and professional chef, Tina is a wealth of knowledge and passion. Through a mutual admiration of all things in the Italian kitchen, Tina and I started out as pen pals on Instagram a few years ago. We haven’t met each other in real life yet, (after all who has seen anyone in 2020 right?) but I am sure we will someday.
Tina has an elaborate cookbook library, and I ask her advice frequently on recipe origins. Her connection with Venice is a uniquely personal one, and she has hundreds of stories and photos to narrate it. This is how our plan to collaborate was born. We chose the subject of Venice, and more generally of the tradition as our starting point because this is where our life paths and passions cross. We have spent weeks comparing notes, books and opinions, which I have to say is my favorite thing to do, except for traveling to Italy of course.
In a soon to be published sequel to today’s introductory blogs, we both will write a recipe (or two) that complement the wealth of a vast food experience. Stay tuned as I share my favorite fish recipe, and Tina sketches how to create your own cicchetti party at home. For now, I invite you to read Tina’s blog and her love letter to Venezia. Follow her Instagram page for passionate musings on life in Italy, beyond delicious home cooked food and her travel escapades.
Peas in their pods remind me of neatly planted rows of seeds, just sown in the vegetable garden. Homemade risotto made with fresh green peas is my favorite food of the spring season. This simple combination is called ‘risi e bisi’ in the Veneto. It is especially well-celebrated in the beautiful cities of Vicenza, Verona and Venice.
I look for the arrival of fresh peas at the farmers market every year. When I spot them arranged tidily in wooden crates, I snap a pod and taste the raw peas; if they are sweet, smooth and bright green, I take handfuls of them home to make this comforting and vibrant risotto.
This is a short story about a quick one-bowl lunch or supper, made with the greens of the season.
Making a good meal with fresh ingredients doesn’t have to take forever. In fact in Italy as I know it, the making of a pasta can be defined as real fast food.In my opinion the most enjoyable pranzo pastas, focus on a seasonal vegetable, combined with a fresh powdery grating of Parmesan or Pecorino cheese. Make this bowl of goodness to celebrate the joy of a new season, that goes by the poetic name primavera in Italian, which of course translates to spring.
As the month of March comes around, I notice that my enthusiasm for root vegetables has deteriorated into something similar to lukewarm acceptance.
Meanwhile, my days fade one into another covered by a blanket of quietening grey skies. Although these words might sound melancholy, they are simply a reflection of the times. Actually, I am grateful for the arrival of late winter and for the goodness of crisp, bitter leaves. This is the season for gathering ideas about the beautiful radicchio.
” Polenta is the new yellow and my Marostica memories
You might been to the small town of Marostica, one of the most fascinating and romantic places in the Veneto, famous for it’s real-life chess game event. Back in my university days I had the luck to actually live there. It was here that I became friends with Claudio, a true artist and art critic, who decided to Economics to make his family happy, despite his aesthetic heart. Many years have passed since then, but I it is with Claudio that reminisce, sharing the marvelous memories of our university days.
Claudio tells me that although many are familiar with his home town, I lived the life of a “prince” with the place. Allow me explain what he meant. When I was a student, I was unable to travel home to Sicily very often to stay with my parents, so I spent many a grateful weekend at Claudio’s parents’ house. It was here that I enjoyed holidays and late nights, where Daniela cut my hair, where I made my first meringue and ate nonna Maria’s crêpes. . . .Much later, when I broke my arm and couldn’t stay alone in my apartment in Venice, I sought refuge once again to Marostica, where Claudio’s parents and sister welcomed me like a son.
This post marks the fourth and last story on polenta planned for the wintry month of February. At the outset of the project, four savory and four sweet recipes seemed the perfect, compact number for a blog collaboration. And yet, as the project comes to an end, I promise that more recipes will be added to this collection.
” Today I’m in the mood for confessing the unconfessable When I was younger (and as I write these words I mean that some time has passed since then), I completely ignored the Italian kitchen. When I began living abroad, I focused on the art, literature and culinary history of the countries I resided in, and rightly so in my opinion. As a side note to this thought, let me explain that I not only detest any form of colonialism, I also dislike the term denoted by the word “expat”.
A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then and this is where my confession comes in! With age comes knowledge and a fair bit of nostalgia for one’s native country. It might come to you as a surprise that one of the first cookbooks I bought was “The Essentials of Italian Cooking”, published by Marcella Hazan in 1992. For those of you unfamiliar with her, Marcella is a spiritual master of “Nigella-like” proportions from another generation.
To give a sense of place to the magnificent M.H., allow me to sketch the broad strokes of her career. Born in 1924 in Cesnatico, Italy, Marcella’s cookbooks established traditional Italian cooking in the United States as well as Great Britain. Winner of numerous prestigious culinary awards in her lifetime, gossip goes that her husband Victor Hazan (born in Italy and originating from the Big Apple) was actually the translator of her books from Italian to English.Who were both considered quite the couple!
Now back to the story of my first cookbook. . . The polenta recipe I have chosen as my third contribution to this wintry polenta project, is from Marcella’s“The Essentials of Italian Cooking”. This authoritative volume was printed without a single photograph and yet it is truly a vision of beauty. Despite the fact that it oozes of Italian food mastery, Marcella wrote a surprisingly short chapter on desserts.
Tucked away in the book’s last 50 pages, I found an utterly comforting, delicious, irresistibly buttery and incredibly easy dessert. According to Marcella, this shortcake was recommended to her by the famous culinary critic and chef James Beard, who found himself fascinated by it during his stay in Venice. The kind of cake capable of creating such rapture is studded with dried figs, sultana raisins and pine nuts . . . ingredients that remind one that the glorious city of Venezia was once the gateway to the Orient.
Ingredients . for 6-8 persons . for a cake tin 22 cm in diameter
140 grams coarse cornmeal for polenta
500 ml water
120 grams fine wheat flour
25 ml extra virgin olive oil
a pinch of sea salt
125 grams granulated sugar
50 grams pine nuts
50 grams sultana raisins
115 grams dried figs . sliced thin
30 grams unsalted butter
5 grams unsalted butter for the cake tin
1 whole egg
2 tablespoons of crushed fennel seeds
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius, fan on. Smear the cake tin in with butter. Sprinkle it lightly in with flour, then shake out any excess left in the tin. Bring the water to a boil in a heavy-bottomed pan. Turn down the heat to medium and pour the cornmeal in a thin stream, while stirring constantly with a wooden spoon.Once the cornmeal is incorporated, allow it to thicken for about 15 seconds, then remove it from the heat.
Add the sugar, pine nuts, raisins, figs, butter, egg and fennel seeds to the cornmeal. Mix thoroughly to combine, then add the flour and stir into a batter. Pour the batter into the cake tin, leveling the top with a spatula. Place the cake tin on the upper shelf of the oven and bake it 45-50 minutes, or until golden and baked in the middle.
Remove the shortcake from the oven. While still warm, loosen its sides with a knife and turn it over on a plate. Allow the cake to cool before serving. Marcella recommends serving it with whipped cream!