Monday, March 19, 2012

That's Baloney!

Americans of a certain age will remember a television commercial with a little boy singing about his baloney sandwich. He pronounced it that way, but he spelled it b-o-l-o-g-n-a

Bologna (bo LOAN ya), capital of Italy’s Emiglia-Romano region, holds many nicknames: La Dotta (the learned) because it’s home of the western world’s oldest university, founded in 1088; La Rossa (the red) because of both the color of its buildings and the left-leaning politics of its people; and La Grassa (the fat) because of the richness of its food.

Bologna (or baloney), the American cold cut, can trace its origins to the city of Bologna in the form of a sausage called mortadella. Pig farmers have been producing mortadella for at least 500 years, but evidence suggests that the ancient Romans may have pioneered the process.

Originally, the sausage was made by grinding meat with a mortar and pestle, and some etymologists think the word mortadella may derive from the Latin word for mortar (moratlis).

And while mortadella is made in several regions in Italy, the Mordatella of Bologna is protected by European law and bears a label attesting to its authenticity. True Mortadella di Bologna must be made entirely of pork (Some forms of mortatella may contain beef, mutton, or horse). After the pork is ground, it is seasoned with a blend of salt, white pepper, peppercorns, coriander, anise, and wine.

Cubes of pork fat, cut from the throat, and sometimes whole pistachios, are added as well. The mixtures is stuffed into a natural casing and baked, not smoked. After coming from the ovens, mortadella is air dried to firm it up.

In Italy, mortadella, like other cold cuts, is sliced paper-thin. It is often served as an appetizer or on sandwiches, but it can also be used in many other dishes as well. 

Pasta with Mortadella di Bologna

12 ounces ridged ditalini or other small pasta
1/4 pound mortadella di Bologna, cut into strips
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
1/3 cup chopped Italian parsley leaves
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper

Put the oil and onion in a frying pan and cook until the onion is soft. Do not let it brown.

Add the mortadella and cook for about a minute, stirring from time to time.

Add a pinch of salt and a grinding of black pepper.
In the meantime, bring a pot of water to the boil and cook the pasta to the chewy stage (al dente). Drain.

Just before serving, stir the parsley into the sauce. Immediately pour the sauce over the cooked pasta and serve.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Drawing Lines in the Sand

A few months ago, I went to a day-long conference in Macerata in the Marche region of Italy. In the U.S. such meetings have coffee breaks between weighty panels, speeches, and presentations, but at this one, musical and other performances gave the audience a chance to rest.

A unique presentation by sand animation artist Silvia Emme captivated the audience. Her performance introduced most of us to this art form, and her creativity amazed us. We applauded each time she returned to the stage.

She works on a light table with an overhead camera that projects her creation onto a screen visible to the audience. Emme prepares the surface by brushing off sand left from her last performance and tossing and sprinkling on fresh sand for the new one.

Carefully choreographed to music, each performance begins with Emme quickly cutting broad swaths through the sand with both hands. As the design becomes more complex, she shifts to her dominant hand to apply fine touches. Her curly locks bob and bounce on the lower edge of the frame as she works.

Growing up in a family of photographers, Emme began taking drawing lessons while in elementary school. In interviews with Italian journalists, Emme has said that she searched for a new art form and became fascinated by the work of Ilana Yahav and began working in the medium.

Emme approaches her light table as if it were a canvas; her hands are the brushes. Each performance is unique, and while each work is destroyed upon completion, video records allow her work to be immortalized.

For her final performance of the day in Macerata, Emme was paired with a musical duo—a violinist and a pianist. The two were so engrossed in coordinating the beginning of their music that they forgot about Emme  and began playing before her light table was ready. The audience could see horror on her face as she spoke to someone off stage. But behaving like the true professional that she is, she began working and captivated us once more. 

For additional examples of her work, visit:

Monday, March 5, 2012

Italian Jam Tart‒Crostata

One of Italy’s favorite desserts, and one that is often made at home, is the crostata. The characteristic crust, the pasta frolla, resembles a butter cookie or shortbread. And to be a true crostata, the dessert must use this pastry dough. In its simplest form, the crostata is filled with jam and topped with a diamond-shaped lattice before baking. This lattice is often made of “ropes” of the pasta frolla.

It’s the quality of both the crust and the jam that can make this dessert something to swoon over or something to drop in the trash. A good crostata from a pastry shop can cost $15 to $20 for a modest-sized one while another of similar proportions can cost only 99 cents at the supermarket. A glance at ingredients reveals the reason for this disparity.

The most common jams used in the crostata are plum, cherry, and apricot, but I’ve had it with other flavors as well. I made some fig-blood orange jam a couple of years ago that was fabulous in a crostata.

And while the pasta frolla filled with jam appears most often on Italian tables, this lovely pastry dough can house pastry cream topped with fresh fruit. In this case, bake the shell empty and fill it after it has baked. To bake, line the dough with oven paper (parchment paper) and fill with dried beans or pie weights to keep the pastry from puffing up too much. The pastry cream recipe in the link makes too much for one crostata, but it freezes well.

You could  make other fillings with fresh ricotta, chocolate, and other ingredients as well. It’s quite a delightful dough and it’s simple to make.

Pasta Frolla

250 grams flour (1 3/4 cups)
1 grams sugar (1/2 cup)
Pinch of salt
125 grams butter (8 tablespoons-one stick in America-plus about a teaspoon more), cut into small pieces
Grated rind of a lemon (organic preferred)
3 egg yolks

The traditional way of making this and other types of pasta is to place the flour and pinch of salt on a bread board, spreading it around with your fingers to make a well in the center. Sprinkle the sugar into the well, then the pieces of butter. Finally add the lemon rind and egg yolks and mix with your fingers until an amalgamation is achieved.

Modern cooks can use the food processor. Put the dry ingredients in first, followed by the lemon rind, butter, and egg yolks. Process until just combined. DO NOT OVER PROCESS.

Form the dough into a ball. If it seems too dry to shape easily, wet your hands under the tap and use these wet hands to introduce moisture to the dough as you shape it into the ball. Do not get it too wet. Wrap the ball of dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. It can be made the day before.

Roll out to about 1/4 inch thick (or even a little more). Line an 8 to 10-inch tart shell (I prefer those with removable bottoms). With this dough, you don’t have to do elaborate crimping of the edges. Just cut it off at the top of the tin.

For a jam crostata, prick the bottom with a fork and spread about 1/2 to 2/3 cup of jam over the surface. Take the remaining dough and roll into ropes about 1/2 centimeter (1/4 inch) in diameter and string over the jam in a diamond pattern. Bake for 30 minutes in an oven preheated to 190 C (375 F).