April 15, 2012
Do you ever fantasize about what type of house you’d want to live in if you had access to an unlimited amount of money? Something that you would like to have, if you could and would afford a totally unreasonable luxury? I do, of course; and after careful considerations I have come up with two dreams.
One is a swimming pool – boring, I know, but I just love swimming. I need to sort out the details. I would want a house by the sea, a very warm and calm sea. However an indoors swimming pool makes sense at night or in winter: I’d want some limited winter in my dream world. Or actually, it may well be that my house is close to a very scenic ocean, which produces the most soothing background noise, but makes swimming in the sea a bit tricky. And I can’t rule out the possibility that I am going to learn how to surf and I’d want to live close to a good surf beach – again, not so great for swimming. Anyway. I still need to sort out the details, but swimming pool is totally unreasonable dream number one.
Number two is a pizza oven.
I have always wanted to have one. There is no substitute for a proper pizza oven to have a great pizza, and there is nothing like a great pizza. It is hands down the thing I miss the most of Italy. Such oven belongs to the ‘unreasonable luxury’ world. It is not as expensive as a swimming pool, but running one regularly is a luxury. Those beasts are huge, for one thing, and they need to be heated for hours, so they are just not really compatible with the scales of an average household. I even have a friend who owns one, and we used it once for a party. It was great fun and some hard work. But there are only that many times when I get to invite fifty people. And still, to make really good pizza, you need that proper oven.
So when Heather from Clay Ovens asked me if I would be interested to share with you a few tips on how to build your own stone pizza oven, I could not say no, literally. I had to know more. The Clay Oven Company is a family run business based in London, and they build ovens professionally. They build much more than pizza ovens, actually: I did not realize before how many interesting recipes you can prepare once you have the basic facility of a very hot oven set up and running. Here are the tips they have kindly agreed to share with us. I, for one, can’t wait to try them all.
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January 13, 2012
I always feel a bit disappointed when January comes and spring is not already here. The days are still grey, the nights are still deep and long, vegetables are still cabbage and roots, and I’ve already had my fair share, thank you: I’m ready for spring. Not that it is cold, not here, and not that I expect spring or summer to be any less rainy – if anything, I know from experience they will be more.
Christmas day this year was just like that. A grey, overcast day, warm, short. We woke up suitably late, opened our presents, had pancakes for breakfast, and then we got to work. Our family was in Italy, we were here all by ourselves. It felt unusually quiet and intimate. We spent the morning making roasted squash tortelli. We ate them for lunch, and they were like little pockets of sunshine.
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January 6, 2012
.. It’s been quite quiet around here lately, hasn’t it? I have barely opened my computer – any computer – in the last two weeks. I needed time, I’ve been needing it for quite a long time: time off, simple as that.
It’s been two long weeks of taking time. I stayed here in my new home or quite close by, alone or with my partner, or with some friends. I’ve been missing my family, an inevitable feeling at Christmas. But all in all, it was a great time. I had time to talk it over and to think about what I want to do: although I have not taken any decision yet, I feel more confident and in control. I had time to explore the surroundings with the leisurely lazy pace of the local, not the frantic-holidaymaker-who-ticks-all-the-boxes pace I usually have. I had time to sleep, to start taking care of my garden, to read books.
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December 16, 2011
Do you ever get periods when you are obsessed with some ingredient or flavour? Whenever I imagine to cook something right now, I think it would taste better if it contained some buckwheat. I am not sure what triggered it. It is a grain I’ve always found rich and complex and I’ve always been fond of. In the mountains around Milan, where I grew up, it is a common fare. It is a hardy, resistant crop able to grow in poor soils, and it actually likes the cool and rainy summers in the mountains. It does not need as much sun as ordinary wheat, a grain with which buckwheat bears no connection whatsoever, other than the name.
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November 23, 2011
A while ago, Sigrid asked her readers to share a grandmother’s recipe for an apple cake or pie. Adding the link, I realized it was quite a while ago, much longer than what I intended; on the other hand, this is just the best period ever for making apple cakes. I actually have two of those recipes that are part of my tradition; they both are recipes my mother regularly made for me. One of them is a simple, moist apple cake, perfect for dunking in milk. I think the recipe comes from my grandmother, but who knows where she took it.
The other recipe is a more challenging and ‘grown up’ dessert: strudel di mele. Strudel is a thin layer of dough rolled with something in it; it can be savoury, or more often sweet. Most people are accustomed to the variety made with puff pastry, quite greasy and sugary, which I don’t particularly like. The original has a thinner, less fat dough, quite common in the (also) German-speaking part of Italy and in Austria. In the regions where Austria met the Balkans, like Slovenia, an even thinner version is wide-spread, with almost no fat in it: actually, given that Wikipedia traces the origin of strudel to Levantine pastries like baklava, this is probably the most faithful version. The recipe we use in my family definitely belongs to the latter group; it comes straight from a lady who ran from the occupied Istria to Italy at some point. She was Italian – or rather, she spoke Italian as a first language, but her hair was blonde, almost white, and her eyes were blue; I’m not sure whether she would have considered herself being Italian, since these otherwise straightforward adjectives can be quite unaccurate and very dangerous when applied to some sensitive parts of the world. Her granddaughter is my mom’s best friend. She too is blond, in a way very few Italians are.
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October 11, 2011
Sunday evening. We’ve been packing all weekend, and then fixing the last few things in the house: filling holes in the wall with plaster and painting them (my plastering skills are something I am so proud of, one of the few things for which I am apparently a natural). Then a tour of the apartment, to double check what is left for packing. I went through the kitchen cupboard and realized I had not packed my pasta machine yet.
Of course there is a box where it could sit. It should.
Well. I’ve always wanted to try a twist on pasta, and there is some basil sitting on the fridge so.. . so here I am making home-made pasta in the middle of a removal. And you know what? I totally recommend it.
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March 28, 2011
And after taking a stroll around the world, foodwise (I saw this lovely old movie a few nights ago), here I am, back home: back to Italy, with pasta.
Like most Italian people who cook, I often make my own. Fresh pasta is a completely different product from ‘regular’ dried durum wheat pasta, the one sold in every supermarket; and it is infinitely better than store-bought fresh pasta, unless of course you have a good pastificio artigianale down the road. For these reasons, if you have never eaten it, you really should give this (or any other recipe) a try. Once you learn the basics, it is easy to make: I have tested this on a few friends, who asked me to teach them how to make pasta: they could not believe the sumptuous dish of pappardelle al ragù we produced after a mere couple of hours work.
(It can take less than that, with some experience; it will take more than that, if you make ragù without a pressure cooker).
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March 13, 2011
I had a very special birthday to celebrate this weekend, so a very special dessert was in order. As you can imagine, turning to my Ladurée book was almost inevitable. Shining among the complex pastries, I was immediately attracted by the gorgeous millefeuille with raspberries. Millefoglie (a thousand leaves) is one of my favourite desserts ever, maybe because it is difficult to find it really good. When I was a child there was one place to go in Padova, Graziati. Made with thick, but not too thick, crema pasticcera, filling a generous, buttery puff pastry, I loved it very crunchy, of course, but there was a twisted pleasure in the puff pastry starting to get soggy and melting into the cream, leaf by leaf. I loved it as much as I disliked the really soggy version you’ll find in most places, with the too dense, chemically tasting filling. In Milan there are a couple of places where they’ll fill it to order. In Southern Italy they make a lighter version, filled with creme chantilly, and with the puff pastry higher and fluffier, often with a layer of sponge in between. Also this one can be lovely. When I moved to Wales I thought that a custard slice was a local equivalent – huge mistake! It is the closest equivalent, but it is like comparing tinned ravioli with hand made agnolotti. I basically lived years without millefoglie, and even here, where there is an abundance of gorgeous cakes, it is not a common dessert. Laduree version spoke of French luxury, with the puff pastry not only compressed while cooking, but also caramelized, and the filling being made by a small amount of very rich crème Mousseline (pastry cream mixed with butter) and plump, tart raspberries.
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November 30, 2010
On Saturday I celebrated my first Thanksgiving ever! Thanksgiving is a bit of a mystery for Europeans – you don’t really think about it until you meet and become friends with some American, and then you realize that our cousins on the other side of the pond have an extra Christmas we just don’t know anything about, and it is not even religious. No stressful and compulsive shopping required, as well. Just the sheer pleasure of staying together with family and eating. I kind of like it!
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October 28, 2010
I am not a vegetarian. Why? Mixture of things – laziness, difficulty in planning, a hectic lifestyle so environmentally unfriendly that honestly I don’t think the amount of meat I eat makes much difference. I should stop catching all those planes first. And in general, I am not too keen on giving up on anything completely.
Anyway, I am quite aware that mass-produced meat is not good for the environment. I eat as little as I can, which usually means I have meat once or twice a week. This is something I am not very proud of, because it does not stem from any considerable effort: it is natural to me because I just love vegetables. Vegetables are the sexiest things ever.
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