Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Pizza in Italy

As you might expect, one of the foods I experienced in Italy was pizza. I had eaten pizza in Italy many years ago--on the Ligurian coast in the northwest coast of Italy. It came on a plate, one largish pizza per person, intended to be eaten with a knife and fork. This was strange stuff for an American kid, used to ordering Dominos pizza. The pizza was quite good, with a thin crust, and I have remembered it for the last 24 years.

Italian pizza as we know it probably originated in the region of Naples. It is a simple food, originally eaten by workers as an inexpensive lunch. It was popular in the south of Italy long before it was in the north. In fact, it became popular in the United States long before it became popular in the northern part of Italy. Immigrants from southern Italy were instrumental in introducing pizza to the United States, where it became widely popular. It was not until after WWII that pizza began to spread in popularity to northern Italy.

The pizza closest to what is eaten in North America is probably the iconic pizza Margherita, pictured above. Legend has it that it was invented in Naples in 1889 at Pizzeria Brandi, and made in honor of Queen Margherita of Savoy on the occasion of her visit to the city (although some dispute the date and the place of origin). It is made with a lean yeast dough, tomato sauce (ideally made with San Marzano tomatoes grown on the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius), fresh mozzarella (ideally mozzarella di bufala, or water buffalo milk mozzarella), basil and olive oil. The crust is crispy on the edges but soft in the middle, really necessitating the use of a knife and fork. The picture above is my first pizza Margherita eaten in a restaurant in Naples, right on the Mediterranean.
Pizzeria Brandi, site of the possible invention
of pizza Margherita
One of the places we went is supposedly the best pizzeria in Naples right now, La Notizia. A smallish place, La Notizia has won awards for its artisinal pizza and is particularly known for its crust, which is begun with a small amount of yeast and allowed to rise over a much longer period than usual, giving it a subtle but complex taste. Aside from the obligatory pizza Margherita which we had there, we had other, more unusual combinations.
This was a calzone-like object stuffed with cheese and
vegetables--no tomato sauce.
This was a pizza with no sauce, but with green peppers, fresh
mozzarella di bufala, and fish. The fish was a mild white
fish and tasted a lot like cod.
The pièce de resistance, pizza baked with Nutella inside.
Oh. My. God.
All of the pizzas at La Notizia were baked in a wood fire oven.

I must say that this was amazing stuff!

Up in Rome, the pizza was rather different. Unfortunately, I didn't take any pictures. It is baked in a long strip on thicker crust than in Naples. It is sold by weight--you indicate how much of the strip you would like, and they cut it, weigh it, then stick it in the oven to warm it up. It comes as a rectangle which is then cut in half, folded so that the topping sides face each other, then wrapped in paper. It makes for a very neat slice of take-away pizza which can be eaten without making a big mess. I tried two types while in Rome--mozzarella and prosciutto (no tomato sauce), and cheese and potato (!). It was pretty good, but I think I enjoyed the Neapolitan pizza the best--even the basic pizza Margherita from the restaurant along the Mediterranean.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Some things Italians believe about cooking

Riso di Grumulo della Abbadesse con gamberi e zucchine, eaten in Alba, Piemonte, Italy

During my trip to Italy, I will admit to being taken aback by some of the things I was told repeatedly about Italian cooking. My perspective on European cooking has been colored by the time I have spent in France. In France, I have been told that the French culinary tradition is at the center of the history of fine gastronomy in Europe. France reigns supreme in the history of restaurants, of a coherent and delicious cuisine, and of food in general. The best truffles are black and come from the Périgourd (or if you are in Provençe, the best truffles are still black but come from Provençe). All chefs worth their salt are classically trained using French methods. I have always harbored some skepticism about some of the more inflated claims about cuisine from French people I have either talked to or whose writings I have read. The French, God love them, are incredibly chauvinistic about all things French. One of my favorite things to do when in France or with a French person who knows how to cook well is to ask a question about French food and sit back and receive a history lesson. All this is to say that my perceptions of fine cuisine have been developed in part through a French lens.

So, here's some of the things I was told repeatedly in Italy about Italian cooking.

1. There is no Italian cooking. All cuisine in Italy is regional. The French don't have much regional cooking--it is pretty much the same wherever you go.

2. The French history of aristocratic dining (and by extension the development of fine cuisine) is not really French. Catherine de Medici brought her chefs from Italy when she married Henry II, and her chefs taught the French chefs to cook. The French culinary tradition is really Italian.

3. Except when it isn't. The French use too damn many sauces and heavy elements in their cooking.

4. Everyone knows that Italian white truffles are the best in the world. Even the French know this, deep down.

5. As is Italian olive oil. Spanish olive oil is distant pretender. And do the French even really make olive oil?

6. Nothing wrong with a meatball, but it certainly doesn't go on spaghetti.

7. There is a complex set of rules about what kind of pasta can go with what kind of sauce and when, with regional variations which put a non-Italian such as myself at a permanent disadvantage in trying to correctly sauce pasta.

8. One does not drink cappuccino after about 10 or 11am.

9. Whatever region of Italy you are in at any given moment is the only region that really knows how to cook properly.

10. American cuisine consists of the hamburger.

I loved the food in Italy. I was spoiled because the seminar, focused on food, provided at least two and sometimes three multi-course meals a day, with restaurants usually chosen for their high quality or mastery of regional specialties. I ate things which I rarely, if ever, encounter in my daily life in Oklahoma. The produce was wonderful. I loved much of the wine and developed a particular fondness for prosecco. But I am slightly dubious about some of the things I was told. As far as truffles and olive oil go, I have no particular opinion. I suspect it is simply a matter of one's taste. I don't drink coffee so I don't care about the no cappuccino after mid-morning rule. That people think their own regional or local cooking is best should surprise exactly no one. The rules about pasta (and, generally speaking, no big chunks of meat in pasta sauce) are too complicated for me to argue with, so I won't.

However, let's take a look at some of the other assertions, particularly the first and second. I think I can go along with the fact that Italian cuisine is highly regional. What we think of as "Italian food" here in the United States is really Italian-American food, and is a substantially modified version of the food of largely southern Italy developed by immigrants who could afford meat as more than just an occasional flavoring for the first time. But to say that France really doesn't have regional cooking I don't believe is correct. Yes, there's the matter of French "haute cuisine" which does have standard elements throughout France, but everyday cooking still has much regional variation. The everyday food I ate in Provençe is much heavier on the olive oil, tomatoes, olives and peppers that the everyday food in Paris or Lyon. Italy may lack the overarching tie of a historical national fine cuisine, but that doesn't mean that France has no significant regional variations. Plus, the farther one is from another country's cuisine, the more it seems to look the same. The Chinese would absolutely balk at the idea that there was one "Chinese" food, even though different regions share some of the same philosophy of how tastes should combine. It is highly regional, and only from an outsider unfamiliar with the regional variations does it look more alike than different. I suspect this is also the case with Italy looking a French cuisine.

And what about that whole Catherine de Medici thing? Most of the books of culinary history I have read indicate that Catherine's influence on French cooking is difficult to prove, and likely marginal at best. The only authors who differ with that opinion are, you guessed it, Italian. Certainly a national cuisine can change fairly radically over time and is influenced by the availability of spices and foodstuffs. Europe didn't have tomatoes, potatoes, chocolate or other New World crops until well into the 16th century, and some did not become popular until the 1800s. Yet the availability of these crops changed cuisine radically. Spices, as they became a prestige item in the Middle Ages, were thrown in great abundance into everything, in combinations which now seem strange to us, at least in aristocratic cuisine. We have different ideas about spices now. But it is unlikely that a 14 year old's chefs completely revamped French elite cuisine.

Finally, American cuisine does consist of more than hamburgers. And we do have a fair amount of regional variety, although the dominance of national chain restaurants has dampened those regional differences.

What is the main thing I learned about Italian beliefs about food? The Italians as just as chauvinistic as the French, but they both have really good food.

Friday, June 22, 2012


Just got back from spending two weeks in Italy. I was there for a 10 day CIEE International Faculty Development Seminar on "Food from a "Glocal" Perspective: Italy, the Mediterranean, and the World."  There were many interesting lectures and field trips (more about those another day), but one of the highlights was the food. Most days, aside from a good breakfast, we were served one or two multi-course meals with restaurants chosen to specifically highlight regional specialities. After 10 days of this, I spend the next four days in Rome eating mostly bread, cheese, and fruit just to recover! I thought I'd start the Italy report by narrowing down my food experiences to four favorites. I am not listing them in the order of preference, but simply in chronological order.

The first half of the seminar was held in the small town of Pollenzo-- about 90 minutes southeast of Turin in the Piemonte region. Pollenzo is the site of the international college of gastronomy established by the founder of the Slow Food movement, Carlo Petrini. It's a lovely little town set among the rolling hills, where there is a lot of agriculture. I saw farms and vineyards, orchards and livestock. Pollenzo is part of the larger town of Bra. The first night we were taken to dinner at the official Slow Food restaurant, Osteria del Boccondivita,  in nearby Bra. The first course is pictured above, vitello e tonnato. In English, veal with tuna sauce. The veal had been baked and was quite tender and mild. What was surprising was the tuna sauce--it would never have occurred to me to put veal and tuna together, but the tuna sauce provided a slightly sharp and salty complement to the mild veal. It was surprising and delicious, and a great introduction to Italian food!

The next dish was eaten in a restaurant in Alba, a medium sized town in Piemonte (where there's also a Nutella factory!). After a meal of asparagus in lemon sauce, a pasta dish with butter and vegetables, and a rabbit dish, we were served panna cotta with fresh strawberries for dessert.
I had heard about panna cotta, and I have eaten panna cotta before. But this was something else altogether. It has a slight hint of vanilla and was creamy beyond belief. It had clearly not been made with gelatin, as I have tasted. I was told by one of our seminar leaders that it was made with glassine, a type of solidifier made from fish bladders. The strawberries were fresh and truly ripe, picked locally. The dish was simple yet delicious. Most of us had to fight the urge to start licking the plates clean when we were done!

The second half of the seminar was held in Naples, in the Campania region. Naples is in the south of of Italy, and is right on the Mediterranean. There, seafood was king. The first night in Naples we were taken to a nice restaurant in the centro storico, or historic old part of the city, called Palazzo Petrucci. The entire meal was fabulous, but this was the best dish of all:
This was billed (in English) as "Millefeuilles of Compania's Mozzarella Cheese with Raw Prawn and Sauce of Peas." This is no ordinary mozzarella, the rubbery stuff we eat in the States. This was fresh mozzarella made from water buffalo milk. It is a different substance entirely--chewy, slightly salty, creamy and delicious. The shrimp had been marinated and were a perfect complement to the cheese, and the pea sauce added a mild touch which tied it all together.

Finally, we had a dinner in Naples down in a yacht club. We were giving a cooking demo of many wonderful dishes, but my favorite was the stuffed pumpkin flowers, battered and fried. I don't have a close-up of the final dish, but here was part of the demo:
I had eaten fried zucchini flowers before, but these were even tastier! They were stuffed with a ricotta concoction, and the batter was made with yeast and was light and airy when fried.

I must say that the only bad food experiences I had in Italy were in the airports! I learned so much about the food of at least these two regions which I didn't know. I will definitely be trying some of these ideas in my own cooking. More later!

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Cooking my Bookshelf: Caramel Sticky Buns

Husband out of town for the last few days, and son had a friend stay over last night. For breakfast this morning: Caramel Sticky Buns! The recipe comes from The Best of Southern Living, Oxmoor House, 2007. There's no author listed, but as a compilation of recipes from the magazine Southern Living, I presume they just have their test kitchen put this together. I don't actually subscribe to Southern Living, although I have read it a couple of times. The recipes are an interesting mix of made-from-scratch with the occasional use of convenience products. The authors also have a thing for bacon and cream cheese--although not always in the same recipe. If you've ever seen Paula Dean cook on TV, think Paula Dean only slightly more upscale and slightly (but only slightly) less obsessed with butter. The authors also seem to enjoy putting coconut in their desserts, which I'm not overly fond of.

Today's recipe is for Caramel Sticky Buns. Sticky buns are usually yeast buns rolled with butter and cinnamon sugar baked in brown sugar and butter with pecans. These are very similar, only you make a caramel sauce to bake them in, rather than just butter and brown sugar. The photos are taken on my new iPhone 4S, because my husband left with the camera.

Here's the recipe as written:

Caramel Sticky Buns
Makes 1 dozen

Caramel Sauce
1 (16-ounce) package hot roll mix
1 cup chopped pecans, toasted
3 tablespoons butter, softened
1/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1. Prepare Caramel Sauce; set aside
2. Prepare roll mix according to package directions. Let stand 5 minutes
3. Pour Caramel Sauce into a lightly greased 13- x 9-inch pan; sprinkle with pecans. Roll dough into a 15- x 10-inch rectangle. Spread with butter, and sprinkle with sugar cinnamon. Roll up, jelly-roll fashion, starting at the long edge. Cut into 12 slices. Arrange, cut sides down, over Caramel Sauce.
4. Cover and let rise in a warm place (85 F), free from drafts, 30 minutes or until doubled in bulk.
5. Bake at 375 F for 20 minutes. Let bunds sand on a wire rack 10 minutes. Invert onto a serving platter. Serve buns warm.

Caramel Sauce
Makes 2 1/2 cups

2 cups whipping cream
1/4 cup butter
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup water
2 teaspoons lemon juice

1. Combine first 3 ingredients in a medium saucepan over medium heat until butter melts, stirring occasionally; remove from heat.
2. Bring sugar, water, and lemon juice to a boil in a Dutch oven over high heat, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat to medium-high, and boil, stirring occasionally, 8 minutes or until mixture begins to brown. Reduce heat to medium; cook 5 or until caramel-colored, stirring occasionally.
3. Gradually whisk cream mixture into sugar mixture, whisking constantly. Remove from heat; let stand 1 minute. Whisk until smooth. Cook over medium-low heat until a candy thermometer reaches 230 F (thread stage); cool.

So, the caramel sauce takes a little longer than you might think, unless you've made caramel or candy before. It took me about 40 minutes total. A few notes: go by color (rather than time) in the first part of the recipe--you want a nice brown, but don't burn it. I found it took a few minutes more than what was stated. If you've never made caramel before, you may be wondering why the heck you need to use a big old Dutch oven to boil about an inch of liquid. You see that part in the instructions when it tells you to add the cream mixture to the boiling sugar mixture gradually? Take that part seriously--when you start to add the cream, the whole thing will bubble up incredibly high. Trust me when I tell you that you don't want to have to clean hot caramel off your stove, so add gradually and whisk constantly. It will eventually calm down, and you can proceed with cooking it to 230 F. It took about 25 minutes for me.
Here it is at about 225 F. Resist the urge to try some
at this point, unless you didn't actually need your tastebuds.
See how it looks like molten lava?
That comparison is more accurate than you think.
Now, for the bun part of the recipe, I really don't know what "hot roll mix" is. I just make rolls from scratch. I did have a box of bread machine sourdough bread mix languishing in the cupboard. I'm not sure why I bought it, since I no longer use a bread machine and making your own dough really isn't hard. But, here it is:
Since rolls usually have some added sugar, I put in about 2 tablespoons of sugar, then mixed according to the directions. Instead of letting it rest 5 minutes, I let it rest about 25 to let it start to rise. The mix was 14 ounces rather than 16 ounces, as called for in the recipe. I am unclear as to why the recipe calls for a mix--putting together fresh sweet yeast dough is no more difficult than kneading this stuff. The caramel sauce was a much bigger pain in the neck than making dough from scratch would have been.

After 25 minutes, I rolled out the dough.
I didn't actually measure it--I just eyeballed it. Probably not as rectangular as it should be, but oh well. Then I spread the softened butter. You could make sure the butter is very soft then us a knife or a spatula to spread it, but I just used my hands. I mixed the sugar and cinnamon together and sprinkled it over the buttered dough.
I rolled up the dough the long way, then pinched it shut.
Since to dough was originally 14 ounces rather than 16, I used a large (10") cake pan rather than a 13"x9? pan. I also cut the dough into 10 pieces rather than 12. First I poured in about half of the caramel sauce, then sprinkled on chopped pecans.
Then I arranged the dough disks.
I covered them with plastic wrap, then let them rise for 30 minutes.
Ready for the oven!
I baked for 22 minutes, adding a couple of minutes due to the shape of the pan. After tasting them, they probably could have used another three minutes in the oven, as the center ones were a little undercooked on the bottom.

A word about baking--make sure you put some aluminum foil under the pan while you're cooking, because the caramel may bubble over. Cleaning burned caramel of the bottom of the oven is not on my list of fun things to do.
You don't really want to clean that stuff off your
oven, do you?
After the 10 minute rest, I turned the buns out onto a plate. I had to bang the plate and pan on the counter a few times to get the buns to release, but it did work.
One more hint if you've never worked with hot caramel. Soak all the dishes and pans in hot water before trying to wash them--the hot water will dissolve the sugar, making cleanup a lot easier.

The verdict? I loved them. Daughter "didn't like the nuts." Son "didn't like the caramel." I am raising Philistines.