Wednesday, April 12, 2017

It's a Tuscan Easter! Wine Cake from the Tuscan Sun Cookbook

Happy Easter! Or as they say in Italy, Buona Pasqua! As this is Tuscan Month here at Silver Webb's Salon, I spent many gratifying moments contemplating the dessert section in Frances Mayes's Tuscan Sun Cookbook, which I've been cooking from this month. The dessert section is not all that packed, perhaps because, as Frances says, Tuscans are not big on sugary deserts and mainly prefer fruity-based desserts like peaches with almond cream or fig & walnut tart. I wouldn't say no to either of those, but for me, Easter means sweet treats in quantity. So I picked "Massimo and Daniela's Wine Cake."

The ingredients to the Wine Cake seemed delightfully indulgent to me. Ricotta cheese, eggs, a lot of butter, a little flour, and then a swig of Vin Santo wine...okay, I don't have Vin Santo, so I used Italian elder flower liqueur instead. It came together rather quickly, and into the oven it went for thirty minutes...okay, it took forty-five, which is fifteen minutes longer than the recipe suggested, and I became nervous as the edges browned like a pancake. But in fact, the entire outside of the cake is quite brown (it looks like chocolate in the photos, but there is none in it). The inside was quite eggy, the cake texture intensely moist but very light. The crumb was so saturated with butter that it almost looked greasy in places, and the pine nuts gave a "masculine" slant to an otherwise delicate cake. The elder flower liqueur gave it a floral cloud that I didn't dislike. I am still not clear why one side of the cake sank and the other didn''s not like I drop-kicked the pan.

Unlike the Tuscans, who I am pretty sure would eat this with nothing but a glass of wine, I doused mine in glaze made with confectioner's sugar and elder flower liqueur, then laid on a blanket of Easter candy! Then I went a step further and made a kinda-sorta version of the cookbook's "Cherries Steeped in Red Wine." Cherries are not in season now, and so I settled for a bottle of Morello cherries in juice. I tasted one straight out of the bottle and was underwhelmed. So I soaked them in sugar, lemon zest, lemon juice, and a good glug of wine. They were passable. Nothing to make the Easter Bunny fluff his tail and dance a jig. However, I found that with cake and ice cream, I could bear the cherries rather well, indeed.

I will make this cake again when I have Vin Santo, and I'll try the cherries in wine when I have some juicy cherries from farmer's market. In the meantime, Happy Easter and buon appetito!

Monday, April 10, 2017

Hurricane Frances: A review of "Every Day in Tuscany: Seasons of an Italian Life"

If you love the Tuscan Sun series, avert your eyes, go back to your glass of wine, and carry on with celebrating the grand panorama of life. Do not read further unless you can relate to a cranky writer having an allergic reaction to a good idea that went bad. This, then, is my review of Every Day in Tuscany, a book by Frances Mayes.

First, let me say that Frances is a talented writer and a good poet. Her turns of phrase are often quite charming and interesting. Of garlic, she says, "How tightly the papery crescent moons fit together to form a neat miniature mosque dome." And she describes Vin Santo as "Thanksgiving afternoon by the fire, a cashmere throw over my legs, lines of a poem running through my head." And she has some good one-liners, like "Love, I know, spares you nothing" and "Though not built in a day, Rome can be absorbed in a few hours: buildings, ruins, streets, the sound of bells, colors imprinting forever inside the mind of the blissful observer." And my favorite, "If you are dead in Italy, you are not as dead as you could be."

But when tasked with sticking to a time continuum and a plot, a poet will often fall short. And this book is dizzyingly painful in the way it switches from past to present, the American South to Italy, from one family to another who show up for a dinner and never appear again, from one vacation to another, from her main house to her mountain house. I can hardly tell from one page to the next where I am or how I should find meaning in a life that is over-saturated with detail and underfunded in emotional impetus. I realize she is not trying to write a novel. But the recounting of a year's life must have some rhyme and reason to it. If it doesn't, a good editor will find a way to make it so.

Here is an account of my increasing frustration as Hurricane Frances hit town:

One page 40, after the retelling of a baffling dream, buying a second cottage, meanderings about a painter, cappuccino in the piazza, trying a new liqueur, a recipe for ravioli, a description of getting into bed, a rainy day, ruminations about Florence, a wine tasting, a day trip to Urbino, and a drive to Loreto, I felt vaguely dizzy.

On page 60, after more scenes of art, rain, kale soup, how to iron clothes with your hands (yes, really), and a paragraph about repairing terracotta pots, my eyelid began twitching.

On page 72, after hinting that she's decided to write about something awful that shook her sense of well-being, I wrote in the margin, "Is this what the book is about? It's page 72, people!"

On page 78, after it is revealed that the big trauma she alluded to is, in fact, not much of a trauma, but rather a skirmish with a local who she has angered, she says of the police officers who came, "I can't help but notice how sharp they look in their summer blue shirts, black pants, with big guns strapped around their waist." I wrote in the margin, "Really, girl?"

On page 119, when writing about her second Italian home in the hills, she says, "This is where I came for comfort when we experienced at Bramasole our own private terrorist incident. This is where I come now for the pure joy of loving a place so purely itself." I felt a stabby pain in my eye. You mouthed off to a local, got an unpleasant surprise in your mail, and nothing else came of it. But you must seek succor at your second country home because your first country home is no longer an idyllic paradise? I wrote "insufferable" in the margin. Much like Martha Stewart, she seems to have lost touch with the basic reality of most of her readers.

On page 126, when describing the twentieth set of friends featured in the book who have nothing to do but lounge around in their countryside homes, she writes, "Today we are going to Fonterutoli in Montalcino with...the Pantes, good San Francisco friends who have a home here and entertain magnificently with the best of Tuscan wines." I again wrote, "insufferable." I appreciate and respect people who know good wine, and I will break bread with paupers or millionaires, but not when they're described like that. 

On page 142, when she worries that they might not have enough money to replace the roof of their main house, I stabbed the margin with my pen, "These people have spent an elephant's fortune on wine, vacation, and renovating their second house, but they can't afford to fix the roof?!!" I had the distinct, unhappy thought that she might've published this book because she needed money to fix the roof.

On page 191, when she trails off into another description of art by Signorelli, I scribbled in desperation, "Dear God, this woman cannot maintain a narrative to save her life." Like one of the scurrilous wild boars she mentions tearing up her lawns, I became wild-eyed and prone to snorting and stamping my hooves.

Had this book been a visual affair, with pictures, illustrations, far less vignettes, and a clear emphasis on season, I believe the author really would have shined. By inundating me with how magnificent, how perfect, how picturesque Tuscany is for wealthy foreigners, the book completely turned me off the idea of going. Maybe that was her plan. To preserve the sanctity of the Tuscan countryside by alienating middle-class Americans. If so, touché, Frances, touché.

While this book was not my cup of tea (or glass of pinot noir, if you will), I would still recommend the Tuscan Sun Cookbook.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Tuscan Sun Cookbook: Three Cheese Pasta Bake, Hold the Bunny, Please!

Episode 2, in which our heroine (that would be me, Silver Webb) continues on in her taste-testing of recipes from The Tuscan Sun Cookbook...

I have a soft spot for bunnies. Wittle fuzzy buzzy bunnies. I don’t eat them. Neither do I eat baby lambs or cows or anything with a beak or hooves. So I may or may not have shrieked when I turned to Page 123 of the Tuscan Sun Cookbook and saw a large picture of a man proudly holding a dead rabbit by its hind legs. I understand the farm-to-table idea, and also the fact that Europeans are more frank about the nature of the food chain.  I just wish they'd spared us the visual in the cookbook.

Which is to say, I am constantly trying to figure out how to alter recipes to omit the meat. And the recipe for “Baked Pasta with Sausage and Four Cheeses” looked good to me, just minus the pound of fried sausage. The base of most of the sauces in this book is “sofrito,” which is very finely chopped and sautéed carrot, onion, celery, and parsley. The cookbook's ratio is mostly onion with a bit of carrot and celery. And only a cup of it is used in this recipe. Because I was not using meat, I went with two cups of sofrito, and used equal parts onion, carrot, and celery. I subbed basil for parsley…because parsley makes my tongue want to curl up and die. This is probably a good moment to bemoan the fact that I don’t own a mezzaluna (a curved blade used to chop herbs and vegetables). The cookbook's sofrito looks like it is minced to an inch of its life. My sofrito looks like I gave it a Swedish massage, even though I spent a solid twenty minutes hacking at it with a big knife.

But not to be deterred, I sautéed away, with half a cup of wine and some oregano added, then a big can of chopped tomatoes. But when I tasted....Blech! It didn’t taste good. Probably because I omitted the sausage, which has a ton of spice and flavor. So, I prinked. I upped the salt, the oregano, added in dried basil and thyme, a dash of red pepper flakes, a chug of balsamic, and then a sprinkle of sugar (people look at me weird when I mention sugar in sauces, but I tell you, it has saved many a pasta sauce for me). After I had the sauce rolling along in the right direction, I boiled a bag of rigatoni, which is pasta tubes the size of steamrollers, then mixed in the sauce, half a cup of pasta water, a waterfall of mozzarella, fontina, and ricotta cheese. A few breadcrumbs on top and into the oven to toast for 20 minutes. The result was really surprising to me. It has a very light flavor, perhaps because there’s no garlic in it. A sweet, fresh tomato sauce, with a hint of crunch from the celery, luxurious strings of melty cheese, and some buttery bread bits on top. It is a lazy woman’s lasagna, really. An hour to make. The ricotta is lovely and sweet, the fontina is waxy and Gouda-ish, and the mozzarella is fresh and salty. The fourth cheese was supposed to be parmigiano-reggiano, but I used all of mine up on the pesto recipe I made the day before.

Even though it was an overcast day, I rolled with the dining outdoors Tuscan thing and ate on the front porch. I was cold. But the food was good!

Tuscan Month: Cantucci and Vin Santo?

In her Tuscan Sun Cookbook, Frances Mayes describes fresh cantucci, the most ubiquitous cookie in Tuscany, as "nutty, crunchy but yielding, and with a faint tang of lemon." Apparently this cookie may be eaten only one way in Tuscany, and that is dipped in Vin Santo, or "holy wine," a sweet wine made of dried grapes, once popular as the wine given for communion. It is, as far as I can tell, wine made from raisins. But don't quote me on that. I would love to tell you how it tastes, but the only bottle I found locally was quite pricey. Call me uncultured, call me American, but I think it's hard to beat cold milk with cookies to dip. But I'm on a Tuscan quest, so I at least decided to give Fiorenti Elderflower liqueur a chance.

I rounded up some cookies from the Italian import shop, and dipped away. I can be big about this and admit that Italian cookies dipped in a sweet liqueur are pretty amazing. Perhaps because Italian cookies (or at least the kind you buy in a package) are not overly sweet or snazzy in flavor. They're just waiting for a little flavor boost. The Elderflower liqueur is too sweet to drink straight, but with a little glass of it and a plate of cookies to dip in, I could while away an hour or two on the piazza, people watching...both of which had to be supplied by imagination on my back porch.

Ghiottini's  Cantucci alle Mandarle
Satisfying crunch, sweet honey, real ingredients, and nice chunks of almond. I could eat these all day. Dipped in wine? Even better!

Balocco's Amaretti
Light as air, sweet and almondy with a little bitter after-taste. Honestly I think most Americans use amaretti primarily as something to blitz in the food processor and use as part of a dessert crust. But these cute-as-buttons little kisses of air and almonds gulp down anything you dip them in and are fairly addictive. Try at your peril!

Bonomi's Savoiardi Lady Fingers
Slightly sweet, light, and completely without flavor. There is no reason for this cookie to exist...except to soak it with coffee liquor and turn it into tiramisu! I'm sure there are version of Lady Fingers that are quite lovely as stand-alone edibles, but if you buy something like this in a package, I wouldn't recommend expecting a flavor sensation.

Barilla Mulino Bianco Pan di Stelle
Tell me how I can resist a package that says "11 magic stars" on it!? Thin, dark rounds of chocolate cookie topped with white sugared stars. My heart sang. Magic Stars! I can't claim the taste itself was all that much different that something a  Keebler elf might make...and it's true that the "magic stars" didn't look exactly like stars once they got out of the bag...I'm declaring this the best cookie ever! Make a wish with each bite!

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The Tuscan Sun Cookbook: Backpacker's Remorse and Zucchini with Lemon Pesto

 I was very fortunate to travel to Italy in my twenties. But Italy and I both got the short end of the stick on that deal. I was a twenty-something on break from graduate school, and my brother came over from the states so we could backpack around Europe for a few weeks. Everyone ought to have this experience once in their lives, before their joints grow too cranky (like mine) to lug a heavy backpack or sleep on trains. We ate lemon-drenched swordfish and juicy gyros in the Greek Islands, narrowly avoided frostbite sleeping overnight on the deck of a Greek ferry, ran with the bulls (well, my brother did...I stayed outside and prayed for no casualties), and quested in vain for good paella.

But when it comes to Italy, I regret. I spoke not a lick of Italian, I had no idea where we would stay or where the good restaurants were. We landed in Rome, rolled the dice, and ended up bunking in unremarkable hostels, eating really awful food...just as you can in any city if you haven't done your research. Rome was frantically paced, impatient, overwhelming, rude, and the people seemed to be *trying* to run us over with their Vespas.

In hindsight, We were the worst kind of American tourists. The Vatican kicked us out because my brother was wearing shorts. We decided that the Sistine Chapel could not possibly be worth a two-hour wait in line. In Pisa, we took the obligatory picture with the tower, and I had an American hot dog for lunch. In Florence, we subsisted entirely on gelato. In Rome, my main food memory is eating at the McDonald's next to the train station. Now that I'm in my forties, if I were going back to Italy, I would research every single restaurant and cafe in Rome, reserve a room in a picturesque monastery, wear something respectful to the Vatican, and wait the two hours in line to see the Sistine Chapel, because The Creation of Adam is one of the masterpieces of European art.

So not only does Italy need to be redeemed for me, but I someday hope to redeem myself in Italy's eyes! I decided to begin this journey of backpacker's repentance with an unlikely savior: zucchini. Frances and Edward Mayes have an intriguing recipe for zucchini and lemon pesto in the Tuscan Sun Cookbook. They suggest hazelnuts, but I went with pine nuts, because they were available. I puzzled over the instructions to use a "handful" of basil. I imagine that Frances Mayes has the slender hands of an Elf princess that will hold no more than five basil leaves, whereas I have my father's hands, big enough to comfortably grasp five pounds of basil. But I winged it, and it looked very pretty before it went into the blender.

Let it be noted here and now that if you use a powerful blender and are not extremely judicious, you will end up with something that looks like Kermit melted into a bowl. Like a green smoothie...

The zucchini recipe seems meant as a side dish. Grated zucchini and onion lightly steamed and then robed in pesto. I am constitutionally incapable of following directions, and I wanted to make this more of a main course. I fried some pine nuts in olive oil and oregano with a few pepper flakes (gotta have the heat), then coined the zucchini, frying until it was on the verge of done. Last, I poured in the lux lemon pesto and let it sizzle a bit. Dinner was zucchini, crostini, and a glass of wine. It was good. Really good. The next day, I still had a garlic cologne coming out of my pores, so I would recommend one garlic clove rather than three. But it was savory, puckery, creamy, and is hard to find a vegetable dish that can hold its own as a main course, but this did. I would serve it again. I would even just put out a bowl of that pesto and dip bread into it.

Sitting on the patio, sipping wine, having a nibble of bread, eating zucchini as my dinner, I felt very Europeanish. Minor redemption for the girl who ate McDonald's in Rome!

April is Tuscan Month Here at Silver Webb's Salon!

Fresh off my triumphant book review of Will Write for Food, I've been jazzed on the idea of reading and reviewing books by food writers, as a way to sharpen my own craft. And I love a theme. So, whilst twiddling my toes and fantasizing about dinner, I asked myself, what do I want to eat in April? Pasta. When is the answer not pasta?! So, I decided to review three books by Frances Mayes, who has written a well-known series about Tuscany. One of them, Under the Tuscan Sun, was made into a movie with Diane Lane, about the poet's decision to buy a Tuscan villa, fix it up, and savor life in the countryside.

You have to be in a certain mood to enjoy the Tuscan Sun series. The relaxed Tuscan lifestyle in the countryside, where neighbors come over for eight-hour dinners and each meal has six courses and nobody ever eats alone, and you savor olive oil made from your own olive trees...this may be some people's fantasy, but it is a New Yorker's nightmare. Eight-hour dinners? Don't you know I have stuff to do and places to be and I am very, very busy, thank you! And I'm not even a New Yorker. I'm just a California gal who loves food. But if I'm honest, I tend to eat dinner in front of my laptop, while I work, with my cats nearby asking for little nibbles from my plate. In part, this is because I am, as mentioned, genuinely very busy. But part of it is cultural. I have no idea who my neighbors are, and the last thing on earth I want to do is spend eight hours chatting with them. The only thing I spend eight hours doing is sleeping.

Honestly, most nights that I'm writing about a restaurant or favored foods, I am probably eating a grilled cheese sandwich with pickles for dinner. I suppose the difference is this: I save the amazing food and the bottle of wine for special occasions and meals out. The point of the Tuscan books is to make every night a special occasion, in your own home. To which I say, if you are a poet living in the Tuscan countryside, perhaps there actually is nothing more to do in a day than write, eat, and be merry. For most Americans, that is more like their yearly vacation, when they set aside the daily grind and try to not hurry or worry so much.

 So, hey, I need a vacation. Tuscany isn't in the budget right now. But in looking up from my laptop, I can admit that there is a very nice back patio outside my window, with roses, lavender, and bougainvillea. A very nice wood table and wicker chairs that I could sit at during sunny afternoons. Why, I could even get nutty and eat out there. I could buy a bottle of wine for my weeknight meals. I could...wait for it...go Tuscan!