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Cooking with Nonna Christmas Special: Torrone

10 Dec

By the time I get to Nonna’s house, she’s already got the sugar and almonds out, the scales are on the table and she’s set up a make-shift stove which might be the perfect height for 5 foot nothing Nonna, but is not-so-perfect for 5 foot 10 me:

Make-shift stove

I decide it’s pointless to complain about the back-breaking height of the stove – if that’s how Nonna wants it, that’s how it will stay –  and instead ask where everyone is.

“Your Uncle Sam’s in bed, little Tony’s got work to do, and your Mum and Dad went to buy a Christmas tree. When there’s work to be done (she sighs)…you know your Mother has never been interested in making the torrone, never. To eat it, yes, to take it to the shop, yes, but to make it? No no no no….”

Poor Lila. She does the most for Nonna but being the first-born female in an Italian household means you’re expected to do everything, all the time, and if you’re waiting to be thanked for it? Well there’s more chance of me not being asked when I’m having grandchildren…

Nonna mumbles some more about my mother’s lack of interest in all things culinary and tells me to weigh out 800 grams of sugar and 1 kilo of almonds.

Really? Weigh stuff? Nonna never weighs anything and I call her on it.

“What happened to using your ‘occhio’ Nonna? You say your eye is the best measurement for everything. All you need is your hands and your eyes and you can cook?”

“Yes, that’s true but no, not for this. Weigh it.”

Weighing almonds and sugar

The sugar goes in the pan over low heat. Nonna watches it and explains we are waiting for it to turn to honey.  Not sure how sugar can turn into honey but, again, it’s not an argument worth having. I get on top of a chair and take the following pictures, and then I get in trouble.

Sugar on the stove

Nonna puts in the sugar

Nonna taken from a chair

“Get off the chair! What are you doing? You’ll fall! And put your shoes on! Why aren’t your shoes on? Why do you never wear shoes?”

Nonna has this thing about us being barefoot. I think she would be less offended if we were naked. No, actually, I know that’s not true – once I wore skin-coloured tracksuit pants (don’t ask why, I don’t know) and my brother had some friends around and Nonna came in and lost it, like really lost it:

“How can you be naked IN FRONT OF BOYS? What is wrong with you? Scustamata che non sei altra (which kind of means something like you’re the sluttiest of slutbag women to ever walk the earth)!”

“But Nonna, they’re pants, look!”

“Ah, hmm, yes, they are, but PUT YOUR SHOES ON!!!!”

Lost in memories of flesh-toned pants past, Nonna points out that the sugar has in fact turned into a honey-like syrup, so we should now add the almonds. This is where the fun starts and where you see an 89-year-old woman who only 10 minutes before said “I hurt so much, I can’t move AT ALL! Old age is awful, my granddaughter, awful!” stir the sticky mess of almonds and sugar like it’s whipped cream. Sure, she does some Monica Seles-style grunting towards the end, but I have to practically bribe her to take the wooden spoon away from her.

Sugar cooking

Nonna with sugar turned brown

Almonds mixed in

Nonna stirring

About half-way through the constant stirring, Nonna adds lemon juice. It sizzles and bubbles and splatters. I move away to avoid getting burnt. Nonna just keeps on stirring. I guess if you lived in Sicily through World War II, you’re probably not scared of hot lemon juice…

Almonds cooking

Almonds ready

Finally it’s time to tip the molten brown sugar coated almonds out on to an oiled marble slab. I don’t know how Nonna knows it’s ready.  I ask her and she says she knows it’s ready, because it’s ready.

Almonds on Marble Slab

Getting the almonds out is not so easy, as everything’s sticking to everything and it’s hot as Hades. That does not stop Nonna.  She uses a range of wooden spoons, palates and a rolling pin to get it how she wants it. Then she dips her hands in cold water and pats it down. I try to mimic her, but my hands actually feel heat, so I give up.

Sticky almonds

Nonna shaping the torrone

After a sprinkling of not-so-traditional hundreds and thousands, it’s time to cut the thing. Luckily, reinforcements arrive in the form of Mum and Dad, or Lila and Romano.  Lila scoffs some stray almonds, leaving the evidence in plain view:

Evidence of almond eating

I tell her what Nonna said about her lack of help, she sighs and starts the next lot of torrone. I think she’s used to it. Dad meanwhile takes some very menacing knives off Nonna and starts cutting the torrone into pieces. This requires a fair degree of stamina, and as we have not had coffee for at least an hour, Nonna decides that’s what she should be doing.

Nonna making coffee

Nonna with knives

Dad cutting torrone

Torrone being cut

Torrone finished

Once all the torrone is cut, we make a second lot which is slightly different because it’s made with sesame seeds and assorted nuts.  Mum and Dad take the lead this time, but Nonna is always watching, always ready to jump in, always giving instruction and always quick to point out what we’re doing wrong. At one point, she asks no one in particular:

“How on earth are you going to make the torrone when I’m gone?”

The answer to which is, of course, I have no idea.

Mum and dad working

Finished sesame seed torrone

Nonna’s Torrone

You will need a marble slab and hands that are not sensitive to heat. It’s also a good idea to share the stirring with a number of people, as it is heavy, hot and difficult.

Ingredients

  • 800g sugar
  • 1kg whole almonds, blanched
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon
  • Hundreds and thousands
  • A few sheets of rice paper
  1. Oil the marble slab and have a bowl of cold water for you to dip your hands in nearby.
  2. Place the sugar in a large saucepan and stir over low heat until sugar has dissolved.
  3. Add almonds. Stir with a wooden spoon until the almonds start to stick together.
  4. Add the lemon juice and continue stirring until the almonds and sugar are golden brown in colour.
  5. Turn the mixture out onto the marble slab. Dip the palms of your hands in the cold water and then, using your hands, shape the mixture into a square slab. You can also use a rolling pin and wooden spoon
  6. While the mixture is still warm, sprinkle hundreds and thousands over it, cut the slab into slices, and then into small squares. Place on plates lined with rice paper.

Nonna relaxes with finished torrone

A recipe for Italamingtons (aka Italian lamingtons)

28 May

If it’s acceptable to put vegemite in lasagne, kangaroo on pizza, and mango in a tiramisu, then surely no one can argue the toss when it comes to turning the lamington – one of Australia’s greatest afternoon tea cakes – into an Italian.

While wide-spread Australianisation of Italian dishes is common, the reverse is not. So I took the lamington – that small square of sponge cake, dipped in a chocolate icing and rolled in desiccated coconut – and created the Italamington – a bit difficult to say, but very easy to eat…

Italian lamingtons

It was not an easy process. While I believe in culinary innovation, I am against the outright bastardisation of national dishes (see Crimes against pizza for more on this view).

So, in order to ensure the respectful renovation of the lamington, a series of discussions were convened with a variety of experts to understand the true essence of this Antipodean symbol.  Notably, these discussions included the rather helpful Gaby from Nourished Within and the rather less helpful David, former afternoon tea correspondant at the Balmain Village Voice. Wine was also involved.

After much heated debate, it was decided that a cake could still proudly hold the title of lamington if it retained its traditional shape, was made from sponge, and was dipped and rolled. All other elements – the ingredients and the method – were up for grabs.

Controversially, we also decided that while purists believe the jam and cream sometimes found in the middle of the lamington to be heresy, a filling was not just acceptable in the making of this cross-cuisine sweet but vital in communicating its new found Italianità.

The sponge cake, as the foundation, was important. I wanted it to be as Italian as possible, so instead of the typical Australian sponge, I decided to be a tosser, I mean, to be as authentic as possible, and consult Pellegrino Artusi’s 1891 Italian food bible, Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well. While it only asked for four ingredients , one of them was “Hungarian flour” which needed to be “dried on the fire or in the sun”.  Also, as the KitchenAid had not been invented yet, it wanted me to work “the dough for half an hour”.

That all sounded rather too authentic for my liking, so I halved the recipe for the Italian Sponge Cake in the Larousse Gastronomique, and, miracle of miracles, despite involving the separation of yolk from white and the dreaded instructions “fold carefully”, all usual indicators of epic baking failure for me, the success of the sponge seemed to imply I could actually bake. Hooray!

Italian sponge cake

After letting the sponge go stale, I sliced it through the middle horizontally, drizzled it with Frangelico and, after downing a glass or two of the afore mentioned liqueur, was inspired to fill it with a mix of crushed hazelnuts, ricotta and espresso coffee. It was then cut into small squares, dipped in Callebaut dark chocolate and coated in crushed flaked almonds.

Frangelico on cake

Making the filling

Spread filling on cake

Sandwich cake together

Sponge cut in squares

Chocolate icing

Drizzling chocolate

Roll in almonds

Single Italamington

The verdict? Well, from the mouth of Romano Cammarano, a man not known just as my father but a critic of food so fearless he makes Anton Ego  look like Marcia Hines, “this is the best things you have ever cooked. You are allowed to make it again”.

The Italamington is a triumph of Italian and Australian know-how and ingredients. Try it, and see what you think….

Italamingtons (Italian Lamingtons)

Ingredients

Sponge cake:

  • 1 cup caster sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 5 eggs, separated
  • Pinch of salt
  • ½ cup plain flour
  • ½ cup corn flour
  • Butter, caster sugar and cornflour to grease and dust cake tin
  • 1 tablespoon Frangelico (optional)
  • 220 g flaked almonds, finely chopped

Icing:

  • 220 g dark couverture chocolate, chopped
  • 1 cup thickened cream

Filling:

  • ¾ cup ricotta
  • 2 tablespoon thickened cream
  • 1 tablespoon hazelnuts, crushed
  • 1 tablespoon espresso coffee
  • 1 tablespoon caster sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

Method

For the sponge:

  1. Preheat oven to 160°C.
  2. Grease a 20x20cm cake tin and dust with a mix of caster sugar and cornflour.
  3. Beat the sugar with the vanilla and egg yolks until well combined.
  4. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt until stiff.
  5. Fold the egg whites into the egg yolks until just combined.
  6. In another bowl, sift the plain flour and corn flour together.
  7. Fold flour mixture carefully and quickly into the eggs.
  8. Pour mixture into prepared tin.
  9. Bake for about 40 minutes. The cake is done when it is light golden in colour and a skewer inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean.
  10. When the cake is cool, slice through the middle and leave it to go stale (about a day).

For the icing:

  1. Put the chocolate and cream in a metal bowl.
  2. Sit the metal bowl above a saucepan of simmering water. Do not let the bowl touch the water.
  3. Stir with a metal spoon until the chocolate has melted. Leave aside to cool.

For the filling:

  1. Blend the ricotta, cream, hazelnuts, espresso coffee, sugar and vanilla in a food processor until well combined.

To assemble the Italamingtons:

  1. If using, sprinkle the Frangelico over the inside halves of both sides of the sponge.
  2. Spread one half with the filling and sandwich cake halves together.
  3. Using a serrated knife, carefully cut sponge into 25 small squares.
  4. Take one cake square, insert a skewer through the middle and rest over the top of a small bowl. Carefully drizzle the chocolate mixture over the square, using a knife to help it spread.
  5. Roll in crushed almonds and place square on wire rack to set.
  6. Repeat until finished and keep in fridge until ready to serve.

Bibliography:

  • Artusi, Pellegrino. Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003.
  • Larousse Gastronomique. Great Britain: Hamlyn, 2009. 

Crimes against pizza – 3. Banana pizza

14 Nov

Someone, maybe this guy, once put pineapple on a pizza and, for some strange reason, it stuck. The Hawaiian is a much derided but long-established pizza tradition. At the Australian Women’s Weekly, some bright spark thought they might have the same success with bananas, and so they put salty fish, savoury tomatoes, stringy cheese and sweet bananas together on a buttery bread base. It did not stick, it just stunk, and, as a result, is our third documented case in the crimes against pizza series…

Banana pizza

Crime number 3: Banana Pizza

Accomplice: Australian Women’s Weekly, in a special Banana Cook Book, which may, or may not, have been advertorial.

Date of crime: Wednesday 25 February 1970

Modus Operandi:

Yeast Dough

1 ½ cups plain flour
pinch salt
½ oz. compressed yeast
½ teaspoon sugar
¼ cup milk
1 beaten egg
1 oz. butter or substitute

Filling

½lb. tomatoes
1 small can anchovy fillets
little milk
1 dessertspoon oil
½ teaspoon oregano
1 small onion
¼ cup tomato paste
4 oz. grated gruyere cheese
2 medium bananas

Yeast Dough: Sift flour and salt into bowl, add sugar. Dissolve crumbled yeast in warmed milk, add beaten egg. Stir yeast mixture into dry ingredients, blend well. Cream butter and work it into the dough. Cover bowl and stand in warm place 40 minutes or until doubled in bulk. Press dough into 9in. pie plate or on to base of 9 in. sandwich tin.

Filling: Peel and slice tomatoes. Soak anchovy fillets in a little milk ½ hour; drain. Heat oil in frying pan, add chopped onion and oregano fry 2 to 3 minutes. Place tomato slices in centre of dough. Arrange peeled and sliced bananas in a ring round edge. Spread tomato paste over them. Sprinkle with fried onion and grated cheese, arrange anchovy fillets on top. Bake in hot oven 30 minutes. Serves 4.

Evidence: See image above. Plus this quote:

Banana Pizza, a new variation of this popular dish, combines the good flavor of bananas with cheese, tomatoes, and anchovy.

Verdict: You can make the presentation as pretty as you like, but once you’ve spread bananas with tomato paste you’ve gone rogue. The banana pizza is guilty of badly imitating an already dubious trend – that of combining fruit with savoury ingredients, as well as claiming such a concoction to be edible.

Sentence: Rehabilitation. Get rid of the fish, cheese and tomato paste, replace with nutella, chuck bananas on top of it and call it a dessert pizza. Not traditional, but, unlike the previous incarnation, actually pretty delicious.

See more Crimes against pizza

Bibliography:

  • “Banana Cook Book.” The Australian Women’s Weekly, 25 February 1970, 127.

Crimes against pizza – 2. Copha Pizza

4 Nov

I don’t know about you but when I see the words “Real Italian Pizza” I don’t expect them to be followed by “made in minutes – with Copha!”

Real Italian Pizza made with Copha

It’s not that I object to that greasy white slab of 100% fat. Copha does have a place in society – and that’s hardening the young ‘uns arteries in party treats like chocolate crackles and white Christmas. It certainly should not be in pizza dough, especially not with Deb Instant Potato Flakes and 1 cup of boiling milk. Seriously, I couldn’t make this stuff up. It’s not just wrong, it’s, well, criminal:

Crime number 2: Copha Pizza

Accomplice: Australian Women’s Weekly (for all the good AWW has done for Australian food, they’ve certainly done their fair share of bad…)

Date of crime: Wednesday 24th April 1968

Motive: With 97 – 100% saturated fat, surely it’s to make more of us have heart attacks. And sell more copha. And sell more Deb Instant Potato Flakes.

Modus Operandi:

Neapolitan Pizza

DOUGH:
3 oz. Copha, chopped
1 level tspn. salt
1 cup (8 oz.) boiling milk
¾ cup Deb Instant Potato Flakes
1 egg
2 cups S.R flour
TOPPING:
1 large tomato chopped
1 x 5 oz. can Rosella Tomato Paste
1 level tspn. each of salt, basil, oregano
1 can anchovy fillets
6 olives
3 tblspns grated Picorino (sic) cheese

METHOD

DOUGH: Place Copha, salt and boiling milk into a basin and stir until Copha is melted. Mix through Deb Flakes. Cool. Beat in egg, then flour and form a dough. Knead lightly on a floured board, divide into six portions. Press out each portion of dough thinly until it is 5” diameter. Place onto greased oven tray. Spread with topping and decorate with anchovy fillets, sliced olives and cheese. Bake in a hot oven (500°F, electric, 450°F gas) for 15 minutes.

TOPPING: Place tomato, tomato paste, salt and herbs into a saucepan. Heat together for 3 minutes, cool.

Evidence: Instructions for Copha Pizza

Pizza made with Copha

Verdict: Guilty of six counts of perverting the integrity of pizza – use of Copha, use of Instant mashed potatoes, use of the words “Real Italian Pizza”, calling the recipe “Neapolitan pizza”, incorrect spelling of pecorino (picorino) and claiming the dish to be “delizioso”.

Sentence: Chocolate crackles should not have to pay the price for this crime so the sentence is suspended on condition of never seeing Copha claiming a place in a regional Italian recipe ever again. Or any recipe outside of chocolate crackles and white Christmas, for that matter.

See more Crimes against pizza

Bibliography:

  • “Real Italian Pizza made in minutes – with Copha!” Australian Women’s Weekly,  24th April 1968, p 64.

Thoroughly modern macaroni

6 Oct

Just when you think you know how 19th Century Australians cooked their pasta, along comes a recipe that changes everything.

Before we go on, however, you have to know there was no such thing as pasta in the 1800s – it was called macaroni. And it was most commonly cooked in a sweet pudding , much like a rice pudding, in a bake of some sort, like macaroni cheese, or as an accompaniment or garnish to different meats  (ox tongue garnished with macaroni anyone?).

There were, of course, exceptions, mostly revolting-sounding ones which involved brown gravy and batter, but none are as exceptional and out of place as the recipe below:

Maccaroni Dressed with Oil.

Take two cloves of garlic, slice them very finely crosswise, and set them to boil in a gill of fine olive oil, adding during the process two or three anchovies, well washed and boned, and cut in small pieces, and a dozen or more olives, cut in two and stoned.  When the slices of garlic assume a golden color, pour the whole over 1/2lb of boiled string maccaroni (Vermicelli or Spaghetti) well drained; mix well, and serve.

It comes from Australian Town and Country Journal in 1890 and, culinarily for its time, it’s a freak.

Not only does it contain garlic and olive oil – both at least a good seventy years away from real acceptance in the mainstream Australian pantry; it doesn’t contain any kind of protein – unless you count anchovies – which I don’t;  and it mentions spaghetti – which, while not unheard of in this period, is rare. The recipe is not prefaced with it being Italian, or foreign or unusual in anyway. It’s just a normal recipe for normal housewives, unlike any others before it, and a good way ahead of any others that follow it.

Unfortunately, there’s no author given for the recipe and that is a real shame, because they should be congratulated for their foresight…  of course, this could mean the recipe was plagiarised, in which case I take the congratulations back…

Bibliography

“Maccaroni Dressed with Oil,” Australian Town and Country Journal,  26 April 1890, 34.

A recipe for ravioli…

26 Sep

For kicks these days, I spend a lot of time looking for Italian recipes in Australian cookbooks. The one below comes from the 1961 edition of the P.W.M.U. Cookery Book. It left me asking one question. Read it, and see if you can figure out what that question was:

Ravioli

1lb. rissole steak, 1 cup diced celery, 1 chopped onion, 1 dessertspoon curry powder.

Heat a dessertspoon of oil and fry onion. Add curry powder, salt and pepper. Add steak and brown a little. Add 8 oz. tin tomato soup, celery and flavourings. Cook 1 cup spaghetti and add. Serve sprinkled with grated cheese.

The question, dear readers, is why? Why on earth is this recipe titled ‘Ravioli’? If ravioli, in its broadest definition, can be described as a stuffed pasta, this recipe is just, well, stuffed…

Bibliography

  • Jenkins, Gwen, Hanna, Betty, McMillan, Muriel and Presbyterian Women’s Missionary Union of Victoria P.W.M.U. cookery book (Rev., enl., redesigned and completely reset ed). Melbourne: Cheshire, 1961.

Cooking with my nonna – carciofi

24 Aug
Nonna makes carciofi

Nobody makes carciofi like this woman, my grandmother.

When I tell nonna that most artichoke recipes call for a lot of the leaves to be cut off, she looks disgusted.

“It’s waste. Waste! People have too much money! They didn’t live through the war. We ate potato peelings. The peelings of the potatoes!”

Nonna is showing me how to make artichokes – carciofi –  the way she has always made them, with breadcrumbs, parsley, garlic and not much else. Nothing, well nearly nothing, gets cut off and thrown away.

“Just the top of the leaves where they are really hard. And the stalks. Though you can cook them too.  Everything else is good. What do you think? We’re Americani! No.”

As I ponder nonna’s obsession with Americans and wealth – not a day goes by where she doesn’t mention their wasteful, extravagant ways – she shows me how to open up the artichoke with my hands and sprinkle a mix of breadcrumbs, parsley, salt, pepper and parmesan into each one.

As always, the question of quantity comes up. How much breadcrumbs, parsley, salt, pepper and parmesan?

“Tania, you always ask this question. You need as much as the artichoke needs. Use your eyes in your head to see!”

“But nonna, I can’t write that in the recipe, people won’t understand. And then they’ll ring me and abuse me for giving them a recipe that doesn’t work.”

“Pah! Just write ‘It needs as much as it needs’. They will understand. What are they? Stupid! Basta with this question! No more ‘how much’, ‘how much’…”

Nonna stuffing artichokes

Stuffed artichoke

Nonna moves the stuffed artichokes into a pan. She apologises.

“Sorry, sorry, see there should be seven artichokes, because seven fit. Five is no good. Too much space.”

Nonna is a serial apologiser. It’s like her diabetes – a disease. She always does it in English too. It is never “mi dispiace” but always “sorry, sorry”.

I take a photo. Nonna isn’t happy with the five artichokes in the picture. She grabs two stalks and puts them in the empty spaces.

“Better… but if only I had seven. Sorry, sorry.”

Artichokes in the pan

Five artichokes in the pan

As browned fried garlic is poured over the carciofi and they are put on the stove with a little water to cook, I notice how much else nonna has made for dinner.

She has already prepared chicory and roasted red peppers, the fish is in the oven and broccoli soup is bubbling away.

She tells me she is going to put ravioli in the soup.  I gasp. My father will have (another) heart attack. Ravioli, in the world of Romano Cammarano, does not go in broccoli soup. It will be a controversial move on nonna’s part.

But she likes “fantasia”- imagination –  in cooking. And she will do whatever the “fantasia” tells her.  It’s telling her to put the ravioli in the soup. I warn her about Romano.  She shrugs and puts the ravioli in the soup.

Later, predictably, Romano Cammarano turns his considerable Roman nose up at the dish. But nonna has been true to the “fantasia”. That is what is important here.

Nonna pours garlic over artichokes

Artichokes with garlic oil

The carciofi are cooked when a leaf comes clean out of it and you can easily scrap away the breadcrumby, artichokey goodness at the bottom of each leaf with your teeth.  You do this over and over, making a pile of discarded leaves on your plate, till you get to the payoff for all your hard work – the heart.

Some unscrupulous members of your family might try to steal the heart. This is an offence and should be dealt with severely.

Nonna tests artichokes

Carciofi cooked like this might be the last bastion of true wogginess.

I notice funny looks from my colleagues when I eat them at my desk, piling up the waste paper basket with artichoke leaves. I guess I will never work at BHP.

Also, when non-Italians eat at nonnas, they never touch the carciofi. Pasta, wild greens, eggplants, sausages, salami, prosciutto? Yes, please, no problem at all. But carciofi? No, thank you, I’m very full, and the thought of all that teeth scrapping and greasy fingers is just too, well, woggy  I guess…

This, however, is not a problem. It just means there’s more carciofi for me.

Pile of artichoke leaves

Nonna’s carciofi

  • 5 artichokes, hard leaves at the top trimmed and stalks cut off
  • 2 cups of breadcrumbs, more or less
  • A handful of parsley, chopped
  • A handful of Parmesan, grated
  • Salt and pepper
  • 3 cloves of garlic, sliced
  • Olive oil
  1. Mix together the breadcrumbs, parsley, Parmesan and salt and pepper.
  2. Open up the leaves of the artichokes with your hands and sprinkle the breadcrumb mixture over them, making sure you get plenty between the leaves. Place the artichokes in a snug pan with high sides.
  3. In the meantime, fry the garlic in a considerable amount of olive oil till it browned. Pour the garlic oil over the artichokes.
  4. Put the pan over medium heat and pour in enough water to come half-way up the sides of the artichokes, add a pinch of salt, and half cover with a lid.
  5. Cook until a leaf comes away easily from the artichoke. It should take about 45 minutes. Or less. Or more. Don’t let the water dry out – add more if you need it. And remove the lid to dry them out if there’s too much water.