In the last few years, I find myself coming back more and more to my friend Luisa’s vast kitchen and gardening wisdom . Our exchanges on family memories fixed in the Veneto countryside, has led to a renewed fascination for a simple ingredient, namely cornmeal. When not consulting my mother’s handwritten recipe notes on the subject of food, I turn the pages of cookbook favorites for culinary inspiration. By the way, I readily admit I adore books, old, new and out of print. . . In the name of research, it makes for the perfect excuse to collect printed wisdom on food and other essentials in life. . .
The list of some of my favorite books on Italian cooking, particularly of the Veneto, are listed below in my notes. Like old diaries, my books are often dog-eared and blemished by the signs of time; others are filled with pencil-written notes, recording various changes or observations about the original cooking instructions.
The following recipe is inspired by the crumbly zaleti biscuit, famous not only in Venetian pasticcerie, but well-loved throughout the Veneto. I consulted Tessa Kiros and her beautiful book “Venezia” for an exact rendition of this traditional biscuit.
I made a few changes to Tessa’s original, mostly because I didn’t have any grappa in the cabinet… I also felt like using dried figs rather than the traditional raisins, adding rose petals to the more authentic lemon zest. While doing so, I could hear the echo of my friends from the Veneto in my thoughts, telling me that my additions are neither authentic or faithful to the original… but I love what both ingredients do to the flavor and texture of the famous biscotti, known by the name zaleti.
- 150 grams of fine cornmeal
- 150 grams of fine cake flour from spelt or wheat
- 125 grams of unsalted butter
- 100 grams of organic sugar or 80 grams of honey
- one whole egg, and one egg yolk
- 50 grams of pine nuts
- 50 grams of dried figs
- the zest of one organic lemon
- one teaspoon of freshly squeezed lemon juice
- one teaspoon of (organic) dried rose petals
- a pinch of sea salt
- 1/4 teaspoon of baking powder
Measure the flours, baking powder and sea salt into a mixing bowl. Scrub an organic lemon with a clean brush under cold running water. Grate the peel of the lemon with a zester catching the thin lemon curls above the mixing bowl. Crumble the dried rose petals and let them fall into the flour, along with the lemon zest.
Cream the butter and the sugar in a mixer until, pale, light and golden. Add the whole egg, egg yolk and one teaspoon of freshly squeezed lemon juice to the butter cream until the eggs are just incorporated. Remove the stem from the dried figs before slicing them into thin strips. Add the pine nuts and figs to the flour. Mix the dry ingredients with the egg and butter cream, blending well by hand to form a smooth, bright yellow dough. Cover the dough with parchment paper and chill for 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 165 degrees Celsius. Layer a cookie platter with parchment paper and remove the dough from the fridge. Roll the chilled dough on a floured cutting board into an even oblong shape, much like a rolling pin. Cut even 1cm thick slices from the roll and arrange them evenly on the oven platter. Bake the biscotti 15 minutes until golden around the edges. Remove them from the oven, allowing the zaleti to cool before serving them with your favorite tea or make yourself an espresso.
These crumbly, lightly sweetened biscotti go just as well with a cup of tea as a glass of dessert wine after an afternoon pranzo.
A story of origins
They are most commonly found in the pastry shops of the Veneto. Although Venice is the most visible city of the region, Vicenza, Padova, Belluno, Bassano del Grappa, Treviso and many other places scattered around the Veneto, proudly sell this particular treat. These biscotti are described both as ‘zaleti’ or ‘zaeti are derived from the word gialletto, the Veneto dialect for the color yellow.
As promised, a shortlist of some of my favorite Italian cookbooks listed in alphabetical order. Meanwhile, as time passes my book collection continues to grow, as I learn more and more about the country and it’s food I am most intuitively connected with.
- Pellegrino Artusi . L’arte di Mangiar Bene, translated as “The Art of Eating Well” . a historical narrative
- Emiko Davis . Florentine . Beautifully written collection of recipes inspired by the city of Florence
- Marcela Hazan . The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking . a vast volume filled with the basic rules to Italian cooking
- Tessa Kiros . Venezia . poetic, authentic and inspiring stories and recipes
- Giacomo Massarotto . Sapori e Leggende della Cucina Veneta . an uplifting collection of food legends from the Veneto
- Russell Norman . Venice . a cookbook written following the seasons from a Venetian kitchen
- Clelia D’Onofrio . Il Cucchaio d’Argento, translated as “The Silver Spoon . a classic catalogue of Italian cooking
- Amedeo Sandri . La Cucina Vicentina + 21 Ricette Dimenticate . recipes from my hometown of Vicenza
- Mariú Salvatori de Zuliani . A Tola co i Nostri Veci . a beautiful dictionary of food written in Venetian dialect