Florence snow video

We are not having snow here today (in fact it is really warm, I have roses blooming on my piazza), but I am still hopeful that it  will snow this winter.  I love snow!

But here’s what it looks like around here when it does occasionally snow.  It was noted in the records, btw, that Michelangelo created a snowman for the Medici household.  Those were the days!

Live and learn. Che sono ricciarelli?

The best thing ever, the thing that has made me happiest throughout my life, is learning new things.

So, when one of my readers said she prefers ricciarelli over panforte, panettone or pandoro, I wondered what ricciarelli are and I set off to find out.

Thank you, universe, for Wikipedia and the internets (I like to quote brilliant {ha ha} George Bush on this one thing).  Ta da: ricciarelli are light, almond Sienese cookies.  For centuries they were simply called marzipan because they make use of almond flour and/or paste.  And, did you know that Siena famously produced a very special marzipan of its own?  It sure enough did!

It turns out that ricciarelli are a traditional sweet treat that, like panforte, originated in Siena.  According to legend, Ricciardetto della Gheradesca invented them in his castle near Volterra during the 14th-century when he returned from fighting in the Crusades. I’m going to guess that his wife’s panforte was too difficult to break apart and devour while riding his horse to battle, so he devised a more manageable size product.  It just makes sense!

Ricciarelli are covered with icing sugar; they are crisp on the outside but soft on the inside and the whole bite melts in your mouth. Fresh and moist, the ricciarelli produce a burst of almond flavor on your tastebuds, along with the piercing smell of bitter almonds.

The cookies are cut and baked into an almond shape.  While this may be because they are made with ingredients derived from almonds, it is also said that their shapes resemble the almond shaped eyes of many painted Renaissance images of the Virgin Mary and other saints.

Any dolci made with almond paste were reserved for the sumptuous banquet of the Lords, because they were made of precious ingredients, mainly almonds and sugar. These precious ingredients were so valuable and refined that marzipan sweets were sold in the apothecaries shops  along with drugs and the most exotic spices of the time.

Today, the biscuits are made using an almond base with sugar, honey and egg white.  When prepared in the traditional method, the almonds are ground with a milling machine, and the finished mix is formed into numerous oval- or lozenge-shaped cookies that are set aside for two days before baking. The rough and crackled surface is usually lightly sprinkled with confectionery sugar.

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Here’s a recipe if you feel like making these lovely sweets, courtesy of http://en.julskitchen.com/dessert/ricciarelli-siena-almond-cookies, who tells us:

My recipe comes from the grocery shop Rosi in Poggibonsi (Siena), slightly revised. I love to enter their shop during the holidays because it is full of smells of spices, happy-eyed children and chocolate… but, most importantly, it is full of people talking in code: can you give me the ricciarelli dose for three? stuff for cavallucci without candied fruit, double nuts. Gimme my usual and gimme the spices, too. It’s a turnaround of numbers, doses, tips offered in a lowered voice, small pieces of written paper and puffs of icing sugar, and the result is this! Ricciarelli di Siena.



RicciarelliIngredients for about 20 ricciarelli:

  • 2 egg whites
  • lemon juice, 1 drop
  • icing sugar, 200 g
  • ground almond flour, 200 g**
  • bitter almond extract, 2 tablespoons
  • seeds from 1 pod of vanilla
  • grated zest of 1 orange
  • extra icing sugar, about 200 g
  • white wafer, 1 large sheet (about as large as a  A4 paper)

** can’t find almond flour?  Make it at home with fresh almonds: shell them and remove the outer brown skin (to remove it quickly immerse them for about ten seconds in boiling water). Toast the almonds in the oven at 100°C for about 5 minutes and then let them cool down. Blend them with a tablespoon of icing sugar. Pulse the mixer several times using the pulse function or by pushing the “on” button, holding for a second, and releasing. The goal is not over heating the almonds, otherwise they will release the oil. Blend until you get the consistency of a medium – fine and coarse meal.

The night before. Whip the egg whites with a drop of lemon juice to stiff peaks. Fold in 200 g of icing sugar and the ground almond flour. Mix in the bitter almond extract, the grated peel of one orange and the vanilla seeds. Cover with cling-film and set aside in the fridge overnight (or at least for 4 hours).

The day after. Cut out about twenty (approximately 7 cm x 4 cm) ovals from the wafer sheet: they are meant to be the basis of ricciarelli. Place the extra icing sugar on a working surface. Roll the rough into a sausage and cut out small balls of dough. with powdered sugar a work plan. Shape the dough with your hands to cover the wafer oval. Make it about 1 cm thick and coat the shaped cookies with extra icing sugar (about 5 mm thick). Arrange them on a baking tin lined with parchment paper or a silicone sheet.

Bake in preheated oven to 160°C for about 18 minutes. They will resemble crinkle cookies. When you remove them from the oven, they will be still soft and moist, but don’t worry! they will reach the ideal texture once cooled down. Store them in an airtight container.. the day after they are even better.

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Ricciarelli are typically consumed at Christmas, served with a desert wine such as Vin Santo or Moscadello di Montalcino. Buon appetitio!

Preferisci il panettone, il panforte o il pandoro? Do you prefer panettone, panforte, or pandoro for your Christmas celebration??

At winter holiday time in Italia, out come the fortified breads as treats!

Some like panettone best:

Panettone (name derives from panetto which means small loaf cake) is a type of sweet bread that hails originally from Milano and is, in fact, one of the symbols of that city. As you can see in this map, Milano is way up north.

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The origins of this cake appear to date back to the Roman Empire, when the ancients sweetened a type of leavened cake with honey. According to Wikipedia, through the ages this “tall, leavened fruitcake” makes cameo appearances in the arts, such as in a 16th century painting by Brueghel the Elder and possibly mentioned in a contemporary recipe book written by Bartolomeo Scappi, personal chef to popes and emperors during the time of Charles V.  The first recorded association of panettone with Christmas, according to Wikipedia, can be found in the writings of 18th century illuminist Pietro Verri. He refers to it as “Pane di Tono” (luxury cake).

It wasn’t until the 20th century that Milanese baker, Angelo Motta, started producing his eponymous brand of cakes. Motta revolutionized the traditional panettone by giving it its light texture and tall domed shape, achieved by allowing the dough to rise three times, or for almost 20 hours, before baking. Another baker, Gioacchino Alemagna, further adapted the recipe around 1925 and his name still demarcates a popular brand in existence today. The two bakers continued in a very stiff competition, with the happy result that by the end of World War II, panettone was affordable for all and soon became the country’s leading Christmas sweet, even if the baking process had become quite industrialized.
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Sold throughout grocery stores around the country (and indeed the world, nowadays), panettone usually has a round base and rises as it bakes into a cupola shape at the top.  Candied orange, citron, lemon zest and dry raisins are added to the dough before baking and thus is often compared to fruitcake. It is usually served in slices cut vertically and taken with sweet hot beverages or a sweet Italian wine.

And with all this panettone demand, all the popular brands try to convince you theirs is the best.

For example: Maino brand, which uses American gospel music:

For another example, Tre Marie brand, which sets up a funny narrative about a family losing all its riches but still manages to have Tre Marie Panettone for Christmas. The whole thing is set to a Bing Crosby White Christmas soundtrack and is funny on many levels!

Several years ago I decided to bake one of these babies from scratch, thinking I’d like a homemade version better than the store bought; I don’t think it is worth the trouble unless you adore panettone, which I don’t.  But here’s a recipe for panettone from the BBC in case you feel up to the task:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/panettone_16322

Ingredients

Preparation method

  1. Place the flour, salt, sugar, yeast, milk and the eggs into the bowl of a free-standing mixer fitted with a dough hook.
  2. Mix slowly for two minutes, then increase the speed to medium and mix for a further 6-8 minutes until you have a soft dough.
  3. Add the softened butter and mix for another 5-8 minutes. Remember to scrape down the bowl periodically to ensure that the dough mixes well. It will be very soft.
  4. Add the dried fruit and nuts. Mix until all is incorporated.
  5. Tip the dough into a bowl, cover with clingfilm and chill overnight until the dough has firmed up enough for you to able to shape it.
  6. Prepare a 18cm/7in panettone tin by brushing the inside generously with melted butter.
  7. Remove the panettone dough from the fridge.
  8. Knock back the dough, shape into a ball and place into the tin.
  9. Leave to prove at room temperature for a further 2-3 hours, until the dough just starts to dome over the top of the tin.
  10. Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4.
  11. Brush the top of the panettone with egg wash and bake for about 25 minutes. Reduce the temperature to 150C/300F/Gas 2 and bake for a further 35 minutes, or until a skewer comes out clean. Check the panettone periodically in case of oven hot spots. Bear in mind that the sugar and butter in the dough could brown too much before it is actually fully baked.
  12. Remove the panettone from the tin immediately and allow to cool.

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D’ACCORDO, MOLTO BENE!  Let’s move on to panforte, shall we?

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Panforte is very strictly Tuscan, originating in Siena.

Siena

The name translated means “strong bread;” its original name was “panpepato” (meaning “peppered bread”), due to the heavy use of pepper in the cake. Panforte as we know it today is very much like the fruitcakes served in the United States, with a very dense, moist crumb, loaded with candied fruits and nuts, and the use of strong spices. Legend relates that panforte was popularized during the Crusades when this naturally preserved bread helped stave off hunger among the Christian warriors.  The Crusaders wives, sad to see their husbands ride off to war in far-off places, loaded their bags up with lots of this strong bread, as it traveled well.  It crossed my mind that even if the Crusaders didn’t eat the panforte, they could have used it as a weapon, for it is dense and heavy for its size!

Panforte may, in fact, date all the way back to 13th-century Siena, according to Wikipedia. Documents from 1205 show that panforte was used as a payment by the monks and nuns of a local monastery for a tax which was due on February 7th of that year.

Currently there are many shops in Italy producing panforte, each recipe being a jealously guarded interpretation of the original confection and packaged in its own distinctive wrapping. Usually a small wedge is served with coffee or a dessert wine after a meal, although some people enjoy it with their coffee at breakfast. The Sienese consider their city as the panforte capital of the country and believe it should properly contain 17 different ingredients; there are 17 contrade (districts) within the city walls.

This entertaining video calls forth no less authorities than Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles and his sons.  Somehow I just never thought of these Brits as huge panforte fans, but what do I know?

It’s pretty easy to bake panforte: all you need to do is dissolve sugar in honey (see recipe below, you need runny honey!), and add various nuts, fruits and spices together with the flour. The entire mixture is baked in a shallow pan. The finished cake is dusted with powdered sugar; commercially produced panforte often have a band of rice-paper around the edge. This special Christmas treat is a lot easier to make than panettone, so if you feel like giving it a whirl, here’s a recipe:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/food/article-1236638/Continental-Christmas-recipes-Pistachio-panforte.html

SERVES 8-10

INGREDIENTS

  • 150g (5½oz) shelled pistachios
  • 150g (5½oz) blanched almonds
  • 175g (6oz) dried figs, quartered
  • 100g (3½oz) mixed peel
  • 1tsp ground cinnamon
  • ½tsp mixed spice
  • 2tbsp cocoa powder, sifted
  • 50g (1oz) plain flour
  • 25g (1oz) butter
  • 150g (5½oz) runny honey (say what?)
  • 150g (5½oz) soft brown sugar sifted
  • icing sugar, to serve

METHOD

Preheat the oven to 170C/150C fan/gas 3. Grease and line the base of a 20cm (8in) sandwich tin with baking parchment.

Place the pistachios, almonds, figs and mixed peel in a heatproof bowl. Sift over the cinnamon, mixed spice, cocoa and flour and stir to combine.

Put the butter, honey and brown sugar in a pan, over a medium heat, and stir until the mixture has melted together and just comes to the boil.

Pour on top of the dry ingredients, and mix well with a wooden spoon. Transfer to the sandwich tin and press down with the back of the spoon, making the surface level.

Place in the oven for 45 minutes, until it is bubbling slightly. Remove from the oven and leave until completely cool, before removing from the tin, and dusting with icing sugar.

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ADESSO, PANDORO! Pandoro is actually the only one of the three Christmas breads I even like!

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pandoro

Pandoro, which means golden bread, is a Christmas cake that originated in Verona, you know, up in Shakespeare’s Romeo e Julietta land.

verona

As its name implies, this cake has a bright yellow color achieved by the large number of egg yolks and the huge amount of butter used in the recipe; pandoro is baked in a special star-shaped mold. When dusted with confectioners’ sugar, it has the appearance of fallen snow on a tall, Alpine mountain.

Pandoro may be served with many types of creams or sauces, such as mascarpone topping, melted chocolate,
or whipped cream, perhaps with sliced berries, other diced fruits, or even pomegranate seeds.  Sometimes It is served with the top cut away, the center hollowed out, and then filled with ice cream or custard.  Pandoro can be sliced into vertical wedges or cut horizontally into star-shaped slices.  Horizontally cut slices can be arranged into a beautiful Christmas-tree shaped presentation.
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This video shows the homemaker how to take a regular pandoro and doll it up for Christmas.
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The following elicits the beat of the 1950s to sell its cake:
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Pandoro takes a while to make. First you make a sponge and then let the dough rise 3 times, much as we saw with panettone.  To achieve the golden color of the best pandoro, you must use farm-fresh eggs;  store-bought eggs will still give you a rich, delicious bread.   If you do not wish to purchase the special pandoro mold, you can bake this bread in 6 x 9-inch pan.  A recipe follows below:

pandoro1

Pandoro: The traditional Christmas bread from Verona

Biga (Starter)
1 1/2 cups (6 1/4 ounces)  All-Purpose Flour
1/2 cup (4 ounces) cool water
1/8 teaspoon instant yeast

Dough
1/4 cup (1/2 stick, 2 ounces) unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon Fiori di Sicilia* (note to self: find out more about this lovely designated foodstuff)
2 tablespoons (1 ounce) water
2 large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/3 cup (2 3/8 ounces) sugar
2 cups (8 1/2 ounces)  Flour; OR 1 cup (3 3/4 ounces) Italian-style flour and 1 cup (4 1/4 ounces)  All-Purpose Flour
1 tablespoon instant yeast
1/2 cup (2 1/2 ounces) golden raisins
1/2 cup (2 1/2 ounces) diced dried apricots

*Substitute 2 teaspoons vanilla + 1/4 teaspoon lemon oil (or 2 teaspoons lemon zest), if desired.

Biga: Combine the flour, water and yeast, mix till fairly smooth and VERY stiff, and allow to rest, covered, overnight.

Dough: Next day, add the dough ingredients (except for the fruit) to the biga, mixing and then kneading–by hand, mixer or bread machine–till you’ve made a soft, very smooth dough. Allow the dough to rise, covered, for 1 hour.

Knead the fruit into the dough, trying to leave most of it inside; any fruit on the surface will tend to burn as the loaf bakes. Round the dough into a ball, and transfer it to a lightly greased pandoro pan. Allow it to rise, covered, for 2 hours; it’ll become noticeably puffy, but won’t fill the pan. Preheat the oven to 350°F towards the end of the rising time.

Bake the bread for 10 minutes. Tent it lightly with aluminum foil, and bake for an additional 35 to 40 minutes, until its interior temperature measures 190°F on an instant-read thermometer. Remove it from the oven, let it rest for 10 minutes, then gently remove it from the pan. When cool, sprinkle the bread with confectioners’ sugar or non-melting white sugar, and serve it, sliced, with mascarpone cheese, if desired. Yield: 1 loaf.

Mascarpone Topping:
8 ounces of mascarpone, room temperature
1/4 cup confectioners’ sugar
2 tablespoons milk or light cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Combine all ingredients in a bowl.  Serve at room temperature.
(Makes 1-1/2 cups)

pandoro4

pandoro3

Whether your sweet tooth is of the Milanese, Tuscan, or Veronese persuasion, the cakes must be made using specific ingredients to be truly traditional. If you serve panettone, panforte, or pandoro during your Christmas celebrations, you’ll be in good company– Italian bakers sell an astonishing 117 million cakes a year!  That rounds out to about 579 million euro worth of cake. Buon natale and buona festa a tutti!

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My idea of paradise!

Lately, when I find my mind wandering when it should be conjugating Italian verbs, I like to waste time er   refresh my brain by catching up on my favorite blogs.  I am a big fan of Elizabeth Minchilli’s blog from Rome and culled the following images from her postings.

A few weeks back I posted a photograph showing what I believe the entrance to a heaven would look like. So, I decided to let my mind wander today into what my ideal room in a heaven would look like.

ideal room 3

And here it is, a combination of details incorporating all the necessities with just enough and just the right style.

Of course, discerning visitors will know it is in Italy.  Where else?!

First, it is always springtime so that your French doors can be open to the outdoors.  Naturally, you have flowers from your garden on your desk, where you spend your days writing and reading.  When your eyes tire from looking at the laptop screen you rest them with the beauty of the outdoors.  Often your vision drifts to the gorgeous floor, where two tone tiles are inlaid in a Moroccan pattern.

idealroom4

Even though it is heaven, you still get thirsty and hungry, so you have an iced bottle of sparkling aqua minerale available at all times, as well as a plate of almonds from your orchard. The mineral water keeps your bones strong and le mandorle are full of excellent nutrients to keep your eyes sharp, your fingers ready to type, and your brain energized for thinking deep thoughts.

idealroom6

Sometimes you stop writing for a moment and let your eyes wander up the walls covered with tile sheets of naturally patterned marble from the area around Carrara, the same quarries where Michelangelo hand-selected the marble for his best sculpture. Up, up, up your eyes scroll, admiring the lines of gray strata swirling within the white marble. The ceiling is well worth your gaze, for it has been hand-painted with lovely colors and designs.  How sweet to do nothing but look.  Dolce far niente indeed!  Looking is an activity too.  To really look at something takes practice. It is, like everything, an acquired skill.

idealroom7

Later on, you take a bubble bath in your simple bathroom lined with Italian ceramic tiles that have a Spanish/Moorish flavor.  While under the lavender scented suds, your mind wanders to the origins of these ceramic tiles and the eastern heritage to which they attest. Your mind is never happier than when gliding through thought like this.  You have a lovely upholstered chair nearby to catch your bath towel or robe. Once again, the ceiling does not disappoint. If anything, it demands attention!

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Later, you wander through your trellised garden.

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You inhale the sweet scents of blooming vines like jasmine, various shrubs including roses, and fragrant perennials.  Since this is paradise, everything blooms at once, so you have wisteria and dahlias, all in the same season. Perché no? You gaze happily at your limonaria and orangerie, maybe even plucking a few bergamot or Meyer lemons to wake up your taste buds.  Heaven includes all of the senses, no?

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Back to the room for a quick nap on this gorgeous bed. You can lose yourself in the fantastic frescoed ceiling.

idealroom

Then, completely refreshed after an ideal day, you dress for the evening and meet someone at the bottom of these steps to the sea. Together you will enjoy an aperitivo aboard a nice boat on the water, watching the sun set.

Surely this must be how it is in paradise!

http://www.elizabethminchilliinrome.com/2012/05/palazzo-margherita-basilicata/ is the photo source.

Skillful hands

All my life I have enjoyed watching any expert at any thing at work.  I like watching dancers rehearse; I like watching a barrista steam milk and pull espresso; I like watching a mechanic’s hands run over an engine seeking the ping I hear when driving.  It is all amazing to me.

And I love watching these videos that Elizabeth Minchelli has posted on her great blog: http://www.elizabethminchilliinrome.com/2012/01/puntarelle-cleaning-eating-video/

So, here I share one of the videos she posted.  It captures a rather unexpected art, but an art nonetheless! Hearing the Italian language backdrop is nice too!  Enjoy!