Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Celebrating the New Year

Red Underwear for Sale
The New Year, Capodanno (head of the year), falls right in the middle of Italy’s Christmas season, which ends with Epiphany on January 6, and is celebrated with very high spirits.

You know the date is approaching when red underwear stalls open in the markets. It’s traditional to wear red underwear for luck on New Year’s Eve, and it must be new. Today, bikinis and thongs (for both men and women) top everybody’s list. It boggles the mind to see red thong underwear in size XXL.
Lentils and Zampone
Food plays an important role in New Year’s celebrations, too. Traditionally, people eat lentils and pork sausage. Lentils represent wealth, their round shape echoing coins. The superstition is that the more lentils you eat, the more wealth you will see in the coming year. The sausage is consumed in one of two forms: cotecchino or zampone. Both are made from a similar sausage mixture. The cotecchino is packed is a casing that’s about three-four inches in diameter (eight-ten centimeters). The zampone is stuffed into a pig’s foot. And it’s all washed down with Italian bubbly, spumante or prosecco. Restaurants offer cenone (big dinners).
Music plays a big part in celebrations, as well. Throughout the evening, there are free concerts in piazzas with people dancing in the streets all over Italy. Additionally there are classical concerts in auditoriums. One of the most popular concerts in Rome features gospel music. On New Year’s Day, a parade of bands coming from around the world marches to St. Peter’s.
One tradition, dominate in the south of Italy, involves throwing something old out the window at midnight. The idea is that you chuck bad luck out with the old year and face the new year with a new beginning. I’ve been told that people used to throw large pieces of furniture and other things that could prove dangerous. I once tossed out a chipped cup, but I made sure no one was standing underneath in the street. One young American friend, who was about nine at the time, heard my Italian New Year tales and asked if people threw out their old red underwear, since you must have new for the luck to be good. I chortled for a year, but just couldn’t bring myself to toss that out the window.
Rogo del Vecchione in Bologna
Fireworks displays explode across the boot at midnight. In Rome the major display is in the Piazza del Popolo, but there are other fireworks, as well. Along the coasts, boats light up their riggings on New Year’s Eve. And in Florence, the best views of the fireworks in on the bridges. Naples is famous for its fireworks, which explode over the bay. In Bologna, the  Rogo del Vecchione is the evening’s highlight. After a night of music and dancing, a large effigy of a man representing the old year is burned at the stake in a Piazza Maggiore.
In the south of Italy, people sometimes fire shots into the air at midnight, and everywhere kids toss firecrackers until well into the next day.

Buon anno!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Italian Christmas Treats

One of the pleasures of living in Italy is being able to sample seasonal treats, from the first strawberries that arrive in June to the roasting chestnuts that appear on Roman streets when the air turns cool. (I wrote about roast chestnuts on Novel Adventurers here last year.)

And at no time are the seasonal treats more enticing than at Christmas when traditional holiday sweets appear in the markets and pastry shops and even the supermarkets. Pastry shops assemble gift baskets with these confections and bottles of bubbly prosecco, and people scurry along the streets laden with bundles of delicacies to exchange with friends and families.

Here are some of my favorites.

Panettone (Big Bread)
Panettone, a slightly sweet yeast bread studded with candied fruit and nuts, is perhaps the most common Christmas tradition. This type of bread, sweetened with honey, has a long history on the Italian peninsula, going back to ancient Rome

The modern bread has its origin in Milano where rival bakeries began producing it commercially at the beginning of the last century. It’s baked in a cylinder about ten inches (25 c.) in diameter with a dome pouring over the edges of the top.

The commercially produced panettone is packaged in cardboard boxes with little string handles, but the handmade versions in pastry shops is usually covered with paper or cellophane and tied with ribbon.

Pandoro (Golden Bread)

Pandoro is a close cousin to Panettone, but it is free of fruit and nuts and is generally covered in powdered sugar. It’s as tall as panettone, but has a diverse shape, with triangular edges.

There are many modern variations of the Pandoro, sometimes filled with chocolate or pastry cream laced with lemoncello.
Panforte (Strong Bread)

Panforte comes to us from 13th century Siena. Documents show that this dense fruit cake was paid as a kind of  tax to monks and nuns of monasteries, due on February 7 each year.

The cake is long-lasting and travels well, and evidence suggests that the Crusaders carried it for sustenance on their journeys.
Panforte is made of figs, nuts, oranges, chocolate, honey, and many spices, including ginger. It is baked in a round tin and is coated with powdered sugar when it is done. Some commercially produced panforte are wrapped in rice paper.

Panpepato (Peppered Bread)

Panpepato is a precursor of panforte containing similar ingredients, minus the figs. The great variation is that ground black pepper joins the other spices in panpepato. This confection is baked in a little mound.
Torrone (Big Tower)

Torrone is a sweet confection made from egg whites, honey, nuts (usually almonds or pistachios), and sometimes cane sugar. The more cane sugar added, the harder the torrone becomes. I prefer the soft variety because I like the taste, and my teeth can’t take the hardness.

Sometimes, torrone has chocolate mixed with the nougat; other times the nougat is covered with chocolate.
The history of torrone is a bit uncertain. There is evidence that the ancient Romans and Greeks, as well as the Arabs, made similar confections. The Romans, at least, used it as an offering to the gods.

But the name derives from the October 25, 1441 wedding between Bianca Maria Visconti and Francesco Sforza from two of Italy’s great noble families. The father of the bride offered a vast dowry, including the city of Cremona itself. The pastry chef prepared a replica of the city’s bell tower in nut-covered nougat, calling it “torrione” which has settled to torrone.

Have a Happy Holiday

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Many Shapes of Pasta

“Do you like fettuccine?” a friend asked as she was preparing to cook the pasta for a dinner party. Her question amused me because it highlighted the Italian obsession with pasta shapes. She didn’t ask me if I liked tomato sauce, or clam sauce, or any other accompaniment. She wanted, I mean really wanted, to know if fettuccine pleased me.   
The main pasta aisle in a nearby supermarket holds vast
quantities of dried pasta in a myriad of shapes and sizes.
There is more pasta on the opposite side, and fresh pasta
 resides in the dairy case.

This obsession with shapes and sizes of pasta permeates the culture. I once encountered a woman in a grocery store shortly before Christmas. She searched for a specific size of spaghetti. Spaghetti comes in many sizes, numbered roughly from one (what we Americans call “angel hair”) to thirteen, a very thick noodle indeed. I think she wanted size six and the store had only size seven. That just wouldn’t do. It didn’t go with the sauce she planned to serve.

I’ve always preferred the smaller types, angel hair and such, simply because they cook faster—in about three minutes, but I’m developing an appreciation for the thicker varieties after so many years here. Some of these can take fifteen minutes to cook.

Tradition governs which type of pasta should accompany which type of sauce. I’m not an expert on this topic, and I have to admit that my eyes glaze over when someone tries to explain. I think, but I’m not really sure, that you should use ridged pasta with creamy sauces and smooth pasta with chunky ragu or vegetable pasta.

Early in my days in Rome, I bought a series of books issued weekly with the newspaper featuring only pasta dishes. I didn’t get the index until the series ended. Imagine my surprise, and frustration, when I discovered the index was arranged by pasta shape only. You couldn’t look up “eggplant” or “rabbit” to find recipes by ingredient. The index listed fusilli, mezze maniche, bavette, pappardelle.

In my first years in Italy, more than forty years ago, I learned to make pasta by hand using a hand cranked machine. Taking the machine back to the U.S. led to my career in cookery because at that point, few people in America had ever seen a pasta machine. I taught cooking classes, wrote a newspaper column, and developed a fan base of people who liked to eat my pasta. When I began returning to Italy again in the 1980s, I boasted to someone about this “achievement.”

“Oh,” he said, “you don’t want to make pasta with metal rollers. You need wood to rough up the pasta and make it hold the sauce better.”

So much for pride.

One commercial pasta company here charges high prices for their dried pasta because it’s made with zinc rollers. Apparently the zinc roughens up the pasta surface in a way that steel doesn’t.

My friend Diana Collins, a poet and long-time resident of Italy has written a gleeful poem about pasta shapes and has consented to let me share it:

Fusilli Bucati Corti

Not spaghetti, penne, linguine,
macaroni o fettuccine,
not angel's hair, or little ears,
wagon wheels, or bow ties,

not pappardelle, macaroni, lasagna,
or tagliatelle, not shells to stuff,
ravioli, rigatoni, or tortellini,
but it's fusilli I like best

steaming in a dish.
Mattress springs from a plate-
sized bed, chewy curlicues
of durum wheat, twists

glistening with tomato, eggplant,
green peppers and squash.  Little
al dente sauce-loving coils that twirl
through mushrooms and cream

or plow through pesto with gusto.
Golden snippets of telephone cord
relaying long, spiraling conversations
between hunger and appetite.

This past weekend, I took a gastronomic tour with journalists covering the Italian culinary scene. Over two days, we spent about nine hours at table plus sampling wares at factories. Near the end of the last meal, I compared the various things we had eaten, including varieties of pasta. The man next to me said, “Ma pasta รจ pasta. What matters is the sauce that covers it.”

So much for my lesson on pasta shapes.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A Birthday To Remember

My birthday is December 5, not a good time for an American birthday, sandwiched as it is between Thanksgiving and Christmas. People have barely recovered from the first and are in a frenzy to prepare for the second. I discovered long ago that I have to make my own party.

I always celebrate the event by having a massage. Last year, one of those milestone years, I traveled to a lovely hill town in Tuscany. In late afternoon, I darted into little shops for some cheese, sausage, bread, fruit, and wine. I had scheduled a massage in my room at 7 p.m. Afterwards, I gathered the sustenance on a tray beside me in bed and cuddled up with my Kindle (my birthday present to me). It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

The tradition in Italy is that the birthday celebrants treat their friends, not the other way around. In other words, you take your friends out to dinner; they don’t take you. That treat can be a simple one: a plate of cookies for the people in your gym class or a weekend in a castle if you have the cash. Most celebrations fall somewhere in between. I frequently take a group of friends out to a coffee bar for cappuccino and pastry.

Last year, on the day before, I prepared an elaborate brunch for friends. I made a torta rustica, cut fruit and cheese, tossed a salad. We drank spiced apple juice. For dessert, I served Chocolate Jack Daniels Whiskey Cake that I’d brought from Tennessee’s oldest bakery and stored in my freezer. And we made s’mores. At the end, with the help of my friend Sharon, I popped the cork on a bottle of prosecco that I’d picked up at a vineyard I’d visited the week before. It was a stunning birthday.

This year, I debated taking friends out for dinner or cooking it myself. In the end, cooking it myself won out because many restaurants are closed on Monday. And I wanted the best for my friends.

I scheduled the customary massage on the Saturday before, Monday being the day such establishments usually close. It was heavenly, and I’m still feeling the effects.

Since people were dribbling in from work, I needed a munchie hour before we sat down to dinner. I served Campari soda and a non-alcoholic drink popular here, along with a tray full of bite-sized snacks.

And since I had to teach a class from five to seven, I wanted a menu that could be prepared ahead. I settled on that old Silver Palate standby, Chicken Marbella, with broccoli and rice. Next came a fennel salad, then pecan pie.

I had specified “No Gifts,” but people brought flowers, wine, and Christmas crackers. For the uninitiated, Christmas crackers are party favors traditional in Great Britain and other Commonwealth countries. Each is made from a tube about the size of a toilet paper core, stuffed with a paper hat, a piece of paper with corny jokes and riddles, and a prize. The tube is festively wrapped. Two people grab opposite ends of the cracker and pull; one end comes off with a pop generated like the sound of a cap pistol.

Our Christmas crackers had a musical theme. Musical notes covered the crowns, and instead of a prize, each cracker contained a whistle with the sound of a musical note. Since we were five, three people had to take two whistles. One person had a small wooden baton, and following a numerical cheat sheet, conducted the orchestra. The first tune was 666 666 68456 which translates to "Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle all the Way." How we laughed.

I took chocolate for my class. At the end of the lesson, I scattered them on my desk, and the students burst into Happy Birthday. And they weren’t too bad. Italians have great difficulty with the English “th” sound and usually say “Happy Burtday.”

I had a Happy, Happy Burtday.