(Fall, 2015) Especially when I am alone in Spello, with plenty of time in my day for cooking and baking, I often try new recipes, or bake desserts to share with my friends when I am invited to their homes for dinner. I have “introduced” to Spello a few American favorites, and also some of my favorite recipes that I have learned from other friends. Sometimes I photograph the process—and finally I have a portfolio of some of the things I have made here.
I learned to make the Linzer Torte from my friend, Birgit. While the recipe is Austrian (Linz is in Austria), her family in Germany is the source of this recipe, and they make them by the dozens at Christmas, and take them to friends as gifts (they last a long time, without refrigeration—but who needs refrigeration in the winter in Germany?). The crust is made of a variety of nuts, ground to a fine texture, and then lots of butter, plus cocoa, cloves, and a little cinnamon. The base crust is covered with raspberry jam, and then the lattice is a product of the location. This ball-and-leaf design is that of Birgit’s family, and is what she taught me. After baking for about 40 minutes, the torte is dusted with powdered sugar—and can be covered and aged for weeks before serving. (Although, after tasting this specialty, I cannot imagine any Linzer torte ever lasting more than a day!) Paola has especially loved the crust, and uses it to make small tart shells, which she fills with a variety of her marmalades for her guests at the B&B.
I purchased a pastry cookbook when Borders Books was going out of business, and brought it here to Spello—where I found this recipe for peach pie. While I didn’t actually need a recipe, it was the style of the top crust that caught my attention, and I followed the directions to surprise Leonardo and Paola with an American peach pie. I carried pie pans from home, because there is no dessert in Italy in this form, especially nothing filled with fruit between two crusts like our pies. Not only did it look great, it was enthusiastically received—and I left the second half of the pie, which was gone at breakfast the next day (I’m told).
Gnocchi are distinctly Italian, but I’d never tried making them—so I cooked them the first time only for myself. I baked yellow-flesh potatoes (the usual kind here), put the peeled potato through a ricer, and then added flour to make dough. Once the dough was rolled into ropes, and cut into small pieces, I rolled them on a gnocchi board (a fork works well, too), and they were ready to be cooked. Instead of cooking them in salted water, draining them and using a separate sauce (like pesto, or a pasta sauce), I boiled them in broth with garlic and fresh marjoram from my little garden, and served them with some grated Pecorino cheese on top. “In brodo” (cooked and eaten in broth) is NOT done here with gnocchi, I was quickly told—but I enjoyed my meal thoroughly, and will do it again! I just won’t try serving these to Italians, who have their culinary rules (which I seem to break often, mostly unaware of “the rules”).
Pan di ramerino (a Florentine dialect name for “rosemary bread”) is a traditional roll made for Good Friday in Tuscany, and then it disappears until the following Easter. My girlfriends and I discovered them in Florence in 2003, and I was able to figure out a recipe after only 3 tries (since I regularly bake yeast breads). Once I figured out that Tuscans would use olive oil, not butter (Duh!), I had the recipe just as I wanted it. It was a surprise to me that Paola, here in Umbria, had neither tasted nor heard of these, and she loves them enough to hide them from her family when I bring them to her. I usually bake 2-3 batches at one time, and carry enough to her that she can serve them in the B&B, saving her the trouble of making one of the many pastries she serves for breakfast to her guests.
I had the opportunity to purchase some very ripe plums—and I think they may actually have been the Santa Rosa variety that I relish at home in California. Because eating all of them in time would have been impossible, I quickly made a jar of jam (“marmalata”) for Paola, who is always needing to make sweet pastries for the B&B. She can fill croissants or tarts with this, or serve it with pecorino cheese for her guests.
After 5 years here, bringing an American apple pie to dinner was an assignment long past due—with vanilla gelato on the side. There is no vegetable shortening here, so I either have to make all-butter crusts, or put in a bit of “strutto” (lard) in the recipe—but finally I have a reasonable crust with the ingredients I can find here. Italian “torta di mele” is more like a cake with apples in or under/over the cake—not filled with fruit like our fruit pies. Another huge hit for my baking reputation—this was gone in one night, and finally they had experienced “American torta di mele.”
From the same pastry recipe book, I tried a tarte tatin (a French recipe) when I was assigned a dessert for one of Paola’s dinners. It is simple and quick. Quarters of apples, unpeeled, are put skin-side down in a fry pan, with sugar and butter. The apples are cooked uncovered for about 15 minutes, until the sugar and butter begin to form caramel, and then a round of puff pastry (from the grocery store, thank goodness) is tucked over the apples and finished in the oven. To serve, the tarte tatin is inverted on a plate and cut into wedges, like our pies. This takes about an hour from fresh apples to finished tarte, and is a quick and easy recipe when I’m in a hurry—and looks like it took all day.
Finally, one of my “refrigerator inventions.” When I am counting down the days until I leave Spello for home, I often come up with odd combinations that use up what I have left in my fridge. This particular day, I had half of a baguette from the bakery nearby, some cooked spinach, Gorgonzola, and roasted peppers marinated in garlic, olive oil and vinegar. I halved the baguette, piled on what I had, and had an awesome “pizza” for lunch—and enough for the next day, too.
When I am here, I have time to play, some cookbooks that I can flip through for ideas, and always Paola and Leonardo willing to tuck into whatever I bring for dessert. It’s rather fun to play in the kitchen here, and (so far) I have a great reputation as a baker and cook. I have introduced, for the very first time, such common treats as brownies and chocolate chip cookies, but neither is found here, even on the grocery store shelves. Nice to share with Paola (who taught me how to make her extraordinary croissants)—and learn some new tricks and treats to take back home, too. Some day, I’ll conquer the Umbrian ciambelline cookie here (wine, anise seeds, olive oil—no eggs or butter). So far, I’m not satisfied with comparing mine to those from the bakery. But, some day I’ll get it right!