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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

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My Italian Christmas – a special encore post

29 Nov

So you know how TV networks call repeats of TV shows encores?  Well, I’m taking a leaf out of their book and posting a story I wrote for Taste.com.au  a few years ago about what an Italian Christmas is like in the little-known Italian town of Melbourne. Consider it a prequel to Nonna’s torrone recipe which we were meant to make together this week, but Nonna hasn’t been feeling the best, so it’s on next week, with a post to follow. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy what will be either very familiar or completely foreign, depending on the amount of wog blood coursing through your veins:

Roast turkey, mince pies and shortbread. This is what a foreign Christmas sounds like to me. The same goes for fruitcake, stuffing, pudding and Christmas crackers. Totally exotic.

My unfamiliarity with all things Anglo-Christmas is my family’s fault. My mother is Sicilian, my father is from near Naples, and I was born in Melbourne, but if what you eat is who you are then I am definitely Italian. No question. Or, to be more precise, southern Italian.

Like all good southern Italians, our Christmas meal starts with homemade pasta. In my house, these take the form of panzerotti. Now, the thing about pasta and Italians is that one man’s panzerotti are another man’s crespelle. By this I mean that depending on where you are in the tall skinny boot known as Italy, pasta often has the same name but can be something quite different. In casa Cammarano, however, the panzerotti are made by Romano, my father, and are precise little half moons of pasta filled with ricotta, parmesan and parsley, sealed with a fork, boiled in water, and served with a fresh tomato sauce. Perfect.

However, occasionally people who are not my father get involved in the making of perfection, and things inevitably go wrong. These people, Romano’s children and his mother-in-law, in particular, don’t particularly care if a complete circle has not been cut out of the pasta, making it impossible to create a proper half moon. Or they are sloppy in the way they seal the panzerotti, meaning when you cook them, they burst open and their ricotta filling is lost to the raging boiling water around them.

Sometimes, crazy people, like my mother,  put spinach in the filling and this not a happy Romano does make. He feels that spinach compromises the clean flavours of the fresh ricotta and I think he is right. (By the way, never ever buy the ricotta that comes in the containers at the supermarket – this is a criminal act in Romano’s book.)

While panzerotti were and still are the specialty of Mr Cammarano, my mother Lidia, or, as she hates to be called, Lil, always makes ricotta cake. The recipe for this cake goes way, way back to an ancient and sacred Italian cookbook that no one can remember the name of and has since been lost. But the cake lives on in the memory of Lidia, who will not share the recipe because it’s hers and hers alone. Even though she claims the book has been lost, I think she destroyed it to protect her ricotta cake-making monopoly.

But I digress. It is a delicious cake, no doubt about it. The pastry crust is short and contains orange zest. My mother doesn’t believe in making her own pastry – she outsources it to my grandmother, who brings it to her house already rested and rolled out, in a glass Pyrex dish with crinkled edges. The filling is fresh ricotta, cinnamon, eggs and caster sugar. There might be more, but Lil isn’t telling. It’s baked in the oven and then dusted with icing sugar. We eat it during the entire Christmas period – it is the fuel that keeps us going and propels us through everything festive from gift buying expeditions and loud card games to visiting friends and midnight mass.

Whilst it is starting to sound like ricotta is at the centre of my Italian Christmas, it’s not. Torrone is. Torrone is the Italian word for nougat but my grandmother’s version is not the snowy white version you are probably most familiar with. This one is made mostly of almonds and sugar, and is caramel brown in colour. To make it you must have the strength of 21 men, four oxen and three donkeys. Your hands must be capable of withstanding nuclear plant meltdown levels of heat. Or you must be my 89-year-old grandmother. She makes it, and has always made it, by herself. True, these days, she lets me or my mother occasionally have a turn at stirring it, but she waits impatiently as you try to churn the spoon, her eagle eyes watching for any signs of fatigue. It doesn’t take long – and as soon as you pause, she’s taken the spoon and is back at it again, and you’re left wondering why you’re standing exhausted while a woman four times your age, and a quarter of your size, is moving nearly 2 kilos of sticky, heavy sugar and almonds.

It might seem a good idea, at this point, to give you some of the recipes for these tasty Christmas treats. However, my father would not give his recipe for panzarotti, on the grounds that you will not make them as well as he does. My mother would not give her recipe for ricotta cake, for the reasons stated above. My nonna, however, has provided her recipe for torrone. Because nonna is good and kind and just, and knows that as there’s no way you’re as strong as she is, trying to make it will probably kill you anyway… so look out for Nonna Maria’s Torrone in the next post (complete with pictures, I promise)! In the meantime, tell me if this Christmas is anything like yours?

Making the sauce, Italian-style

14 Mar

Melbourne, how did you spend Monday’s public holiday? At the Moomba festival, maybe? Hanging out on a beach? Relaxing at a barbecue? How nice for you. I spent it making sauce in nonna’s backyard. Now, if you’ve never made the sauce before, you might imagine a charming scene with tarantella music and handkerchiefs on heads and ethnic types separating tomatoes from their skins as though such an activity filled them with joy and delight.

Free flowing sauce

If you have made the sauce before, you will know that there’s a lot of whinging about which family members haven’t shown up and who isn’t pulling their weight. Your clothes look like you’ve been hanging out with Dexter and your hands sting from too much contact with acidic tomatoes. It’s a non-unionized work place, there are no occupational health and safety requirements and there are no scheduled breaks, mind you there is no shortage of espresso and panettone either. You might be well caffeinated, but it’s still bloody hard work. You have to wash, squash, bottle, seal and cook 300 bottles of sauce. It takes time and it takes effort and there’s no singing, no dancing and no one with a handkerchief on their head, not even my dad.

The good news is you do get paid. Your immediate labour is rewarded with a big plate of ravioli with the new sauce. Your take home pay is a year’s worth of sauce made with Koo-Wee-Rup tomatoes (thanks Zio Giuseppe!) and Spotswood labour. Missing Moomba, which from all accounts is pretty crap anyway, is clearly a small price to pay.

Tomatoes in boxes

Empty bottles

Washing tomatoes

Squashing tomatoes

Cut tomatoes

Basil for the bottles

Bottle inspection

First sauce of the day

Sauce machine in action

At the sauce table

Sauce for filling

Filling the bottles

Bottles with sauce

Bottle tops

Sealing bottles

Packing bottles

Putting bottles in barrels

Bottles in barrels

Cooking the bottles

Nonna with ravioli

Ravioli

A fig with my name on it…

13 Mar

Zio Tony is still picking figs in nonna’s backyard. Here’s one he found for me yesterday:

Fig with my name on it

Fig picking with Zio Tony

2 Mar

Not a lot excites my Zio Tony. In fact, as far as I can tell, there are only two things. Making money – which he is very good at – and figs – which he picks from my nonna’s backyard tree with the joy of a peasant who’s just won the lottery. Well, the fig lottery anyway.

My Zio Tony

My job, in all of this, is to hold the ladder steady and put the figs in the bucket. It’s kind of boring, to be honest, and the stupid mosquitoes always treat my legs as an all-you-can-eat buffet, but it does allow me to watch Zio work his way around the fig tree, where I routinely witness a strange but charming transformation. The wheeling, dealing businessman disappears. He is replaced by a giddy farm boy whose level of excitement is directly related to the beauty, and more importantly, ripeness of each fig.

Zio Tony on top of the shed

Zio Tony up the ladder in the fig tree

Uncle Tony in the middle of the fig tree

Handing down figs

It starts calmly enough.

“Ahh, look at this one Tania, this one’s beautiful,” he says as he passes the fig down to me.

“But this one! This one is even better! You have to eat this one now Tania, eat it now!”

“Ohhh, this one’s just sugar! Look! It’s dripping sugar! Eat it now, it won’t be good later Tania, eat it now.”

The more excited he gets, the less English and the more Sicilian dialect falls from his mouth. It translates to the following, more or less:

“Tania, Tania, Tania this is the best fig ever to grace the earth in the history of the world, eat it now, it can’t wait. EAT! EAT!”

Which can’t be true, because a few seconds later, a fig even better than that one miraculously appears. I eat that too because, if someone tells me to eat, I do. Plus I quite like figs. And saying no to  Zio Tony is never a good idea.

Not surprisingly by the end of the 20 minutes I have scarfed down all kinds of figs – from big, fat so-ripe-they’re splitting figs to tiny ones that you can drop into your mouth like a lolly – and now there’s two new big buckets to get through as well…

Not that Zio has come down from the fig tree yet. He is marking out which figs to get next time.

“See this one? It’s yours! On Sunday, it will be perfect! If those bloody birds don’t get there first…”

Fig in the tree

Figs

Figs in hand

The fig tree