Aug 272011

An interesting exercise in culinary archaeology has been carried out in Sassari, Sardinia, a corner of the world we do not usually visit in this blog. l’Istituto alberghiero di Sassari, the Hoteliers Instutite of Sassari had a number of their students go out and interview those, now aged, Sardinians who can remember the food that they ate in the early twentieth century. The result is Il Cibo e La Memoria edited by Roberto Cesaraccio, 135 pages of ‘memory recipes’. Note that we are still struggling to get our hands on a copy! SY

Aug 012011

As John Dickie points out in Delizia, the founding fathers of modern Italy did not see food culture as way to cultural unification. The only references we have are a metaphor from Cavour on the “oranges being ready for the plucking” and then one from Mazzini. The arch-republican sends his mother a letter from Switzerland and off-handedly mentions a cake that his mother should try, as Mazzini likes it. The recipe, he says, is approximate because he’s no cook and it was recounted to him “by a girl in broken French.” The original recipe reads:

“Grind three ounces of almonds with as much sugar. Whip the juice of one lemon with three egg yolks, whip the whites to a cream and mix everything. Grease a cake tin with butter and line it with a crust, then put the mixture above on it. Put sugar on it and put it in the oven.”

A more modern version of the recipe might be as follows:


Recipe for Mazzini’s Almond Cake
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 

Serves: 6-8

  • pie crust
  • 3 ounces of almonds (about 100g)
  • 3 ounces of sugar
  • 1 lemon
  • 2 eggs

  1. Remove the almond “skin” by dipping them in boiling water for a few minutes.
  2. After they’ve dried, grind them up well with the sugar.
  3. Whip the yolks with the lemon juice and mix them with the almonds and sugar.
  4. Whip the egg whites, then add them to the mix as well.
  5. Line a cake tin with crust, then pour the mix in and top it with sugar.
  6. Bake at moderate heat for 35-40 minutes.

Jul 192011

As Allen Grieco notes, there is a curious lack of correspondence in the Germanic languages of the Romance term for “that which goes with bread,” in Italian companatico. In medieval times, dietary norms for the poor were simple: bread, “that which goes with bread” (meaning mainly vegetables), and if the peasant were lucky, a little vinaccio.

The mania in the last twenty years to revive old culinary “traditions” (and, I would hold, to maintain that they were in the past omnipresent) has popularized some delicious peasant fare. The frisa (or frisella, or fresella, depending on the dialect) is a Southern Italian, mainly Puglian, traditional bread and an excellent illustration of both “peasant fare” (cucina povera) and companatico. The frisa is essentially a bagel made of wheat flour or a mix of wheat and barley flour, half-backed, cut roughly in half, and then baked hard. These rock-hard bagels could be made in the hundreds in a communal oven once a month (or even less frequently); their dryness allowed for excellent conservation.

To eat a frisa, a peasant merely had to dip it in water for a few seconds, then spread chopped vegetables on top. Nowadays olive oil is a typical ingredient, but we can forget with the idea of peasants using olive oil. A small plate, the frisa allowed the peasant to dispense with dishes. As with many things, there has been an attempt to set in stone exactly what a frisa is and is not, but a basic recipe follows.  ZN

Frise: an Historical Recipe of Cucina Povera
Recipe type: Appetiser,main
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 

Serves: 32

  • 500g (2 cups) of flour
  • 350ml (1 ½ cups) water
  • 10 g (1/3 oz.) yeast
  • 2 teaspoons of salt

  1. Prepare a mix of the yeast, one third of the water (tepid or warm if possible), and about a quarter of the flour.
  2. Let this rest 30 minutes then add the other ingredients.
  3. Kneed well for a soft dough.
  4. Let rise for another two hours or until the size has doubled.
  5. Make little snakes that are ¾” wide and 10” long and twist them into bagels.
  6. Put them on a tray and let them rise another hour.
  7. Cook at 400° for 10-15 minutes, then take them out.
  8. When they’re cool enough to handle, cut them in half with a knife or a wire, then put them back in at 350° and bake for 45 minutes or until golden brown.

Jul 152011

Many English-speakers miss the clever meaning of this name, which is, in Italian, “Pick me up!” Despite what I thought, the invention of tiramisù are relatively recent, possibly at the El Toula restaurant in Treviso the 1960s, though of course food philologists will trace this back, like zuppa inglese, to eighteenth century cakes called “trifles.” One food blog calls the dish, “one of the latest additions to ‘traditional’ Italian cooking,” without a hint of sarcasm. Like zuppa inglese, the Savoy cookies that are the main ingredient of tiramisù are soaked in something (be it coffee, rum, or another liquer), then layered, with some sort of cream or spreadable cheese in between them. There are many other ingredients that wander in and out of the hundreds of canonical versions of the recipe, the main one being grated chocolate.  The break-out moment for tiramisu in the States was doubtless the movie “Sleepless in Seattle,” where Tom Hanks shows how out of the dating game he is when he thinks “tiramisù” is a sexual position. ZN


The following is apparently Sophia Loren’s favorite version of the dessert:


* eggs, 3 separated

* sugar, 5 tablespoons

* mascarpone cheese, 6 ounces

* ladyfingers, 1 large package (approximately 36)

* orange liqeur, 1 cup

* espresso coffee, 1 cup

* bitter chocolate, 2 ounces, grated

* unsweetened cocoa powder, 1/2 cup, or 2 ounces grated bittersweet chocolate



1. Combine egg yolks and sugar in a medium-sized bowl and beat well.

2. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites to stiff peaks.

3. In a third, larger bowl, combine the egg yolk mixture with the mascarpone, then fold in the egg whites to produce a creamy mixture.

4. Arrange a tight layer of ladyfingers in a 9-by-12-inch serving dish.

5. Using a spoon, drizzle about half the liqueur and half the espresso over the ladyfingers.

6. Cover the ladyfingers with the mascarpone mixture and the grated chocolate, and dust it with a little more than half the cocoa.

7. Cover the filling with a second layer of ladyfingers and drizzle with the remaining liqueur and espresso.

8. Place the dish in the refrigerator for at least 12 hours (the Tiramisu can be made 24 hours in advance).

9. Top with the remaining cocoa before serving.


For several amusing origin stories for tiramisù, look at the Food Timeline.

May 292011

In the last edition of Pellegrino Artusi’s celebrated cookbook, La Scienza in Cucina e l’arte del Mangiar Bene (Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well), published in 1910, the author gives the following recipe for “Pizza alla napoletana” (Pizza from Naples):

“Use half the ingredients in recipe #589A to make a shortcrust pastry or short pastry dough, or use full amounts in recipe B.

150 g of ricotta cheese

70g of sweet almonds and three bitter almonds

50g of sugar

20g flour

1 egg and one egg yolk

A dash of lemon zest or vanilla

Half a glass of milk

Seem odd? What we think of as a typical Italian food (if not the Italian food, along with pasta) was not even mentioned in Artusi. Indeed the name “pizza” referred to a brownie-like dessert. Indeed, the translator of my edition gives this recipe as “Neapolitan-Style Sweet Pizza,” something apparently not necessary at the time in Italian as the savory version was not popular. Though the fact that pizza as we know it was made in Naples already in the early 1800s is uncontested, but its popularity all over the Italian peninsula had to wait until much later, probably until the post-war period. Interestingly enough, there is a Neapolitan dessert called “La Caprese” (not to be confused with the dish with mozzarella, basil, and tomatoes) whose recipe looks very familiar, though without chocolate—a renaming?  ZN

My edition of Artusi’s classic was translated by Murtha Baca and Stephen Sartarelli, and edited by Luigi Ballerini and Massimo Ciavolella. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003)

Apr 252011

C.R.A.L. president Daniela Mecocci with the winner, Stefania Cagliesi.

I was kindly invited by Claudia Bellavita and Daniela Mecocci of the C.R.A.L., the recreational club of the employees of the city of Perugia, to their annual “Torta di Pasqua” contest. This savory bread cake, for which we give the recipe below, is traditional for the Perugian area. Nine contestants had prepared their best torta di Pasqua and over fifty people came and cast their ballots for the winner. What I found interesting particularly was the fact that there were also several other cakes there: the Ciaramicola (sweet and red, like zuppa inglese, a Perugian cake) but also the Pastiera, a Neapolitan dessert, as well as the Colomba, a commercial cake common to the whole peninsula. This diversity of cakes reflects a North-South mixing, where culinary traditions follow (and change with) migrations. Needless to say, I ate quite well thanks to the ladies of the C.R.A.L.

Our friends at “Il Parma” deli brought us this recipe for the traditional “torta al formaggio o di Pasqua.” Torta is a little different in Italian, as it can refer to a sweet or savory cake. Tradition instructs us that this cake should be made on Holy Thursday or Good Friday and that it should not be tried until “the bells ring,” i.e. Easter. To prepare it, add to normal bread dough brewer’s yeast, beaten eggs, extra-virgin olive oil, lard, grated aged Norcia pecorino, pieces of fresh pecorino, salt, and pepper. The dough should be well-kneaded, to the point of being shiny, then let rise in ceramic forms. Let rise, then after three hours in an oven the loaves should be a yellow, amber color: it can then be cut into layered slices and capocollo can be inserted like a layer cake.  The finished bread was usually brought along to church to be blessed.  Hard-boiled eggs and lamb accompany it.   ZN

Parma recommends the following proportions:

200g of parmesan cheese

100g of grated pecorino

100g of Emmental or fresh pecorino in pieces

1kg flour

350g lard

30g of salt

120g of brewer’s yeast

10 eggs

Un ringraziamento particolare a Claudia Bellavita, Daniela Mecocci ed i signori di Parma.

Feb 012011

We alluded a few days ago to the original recipe for Ligurian pesto that seems to have included – heresy! – parsley in preference to basil. Not that you would know this looking at the very strict regulations on ‘proper’ pesto handed down by the Consorzio del Pesto Genovese. There follows a loose translation here. Note that we missed out references to Italian quality laws!

Basil (Ocimum basilicum): 50 grams of basil leaves. The basil should obviously be young and ideally fresh. The basil should be genovese whether conserved or taken directly from the plant.

Olive Oil:  half a glass. The olive oil must be from Liguria or, at worst, produced in a neighbouring Italian region.

Grated Parmesan: six tablespoons of Parmigiano Reggiano and two of Pecorino. These should correspond to the DOP (EU category) ‘Parmigiano Reggiano’ or ‘Grana Padano’ (for the Parmesan) and Pecorino from Lazio, Tuscany, Sardinia or Sicily.

Garlic: two buds.

Pinoli: one tablespoon. These must come from pinus pinea and must have been produced in the Mediterranean area.

Nuts: In alternative to pinoli it is possibile to use nuts from juglans regia that must be of European origin.

Cooking Salt: a few grains.

Purists would say that basil alone should be used, more particularly Pra’ Basil – in fact, even rocket can be used for barbarian Anglo-Saxon tastes, though say it sotto voce. However, even purists accept some latitude in the proportions of parmesan to pecorino.