Category Archives: Italian holidays

Convenient Comfort – Innocent Love in a Jar

A few thoughts for World Nutella Day

Everyone has their comfort food. I have friends who zero in on the nearest pint of Haagen Dazs or Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Growing up in Wisconsin my consolation for being dragged out to cross-country ski during saturday morning cartoons was a cup or two of hot chocolate with marshmallows.

One of the problems with some comfort foods is get they are not always there when you need them. Good pizza and quality draft beer need the right restaurants or pubs, ice cream needs a fridge, and hot chocolate needs something to heat it up.

Good Chocolate, be it Swiss chocolate, boeri and gianduia chocolates from Piedmont, or your favorite fix can do the trick, but then you risk falling afoul of the dark versus milk-chocolate debate…and why choose one when you can have them both?

As American pop-culture foods like colas, colorful breakfast cereals, corn chips (crisps!) and McDonalds spreads across the globe, an Italian multinational has been quietly spreading its comforting paste the other way….like a tasty plague.

With Nutella, you don’t need anything tools or instruments to reduce depression whilst widening your waistline; if your fingers are clean not even a spoon is needed (and like chocolate-covered pretzels a little bit of salt makes it more savory).

And there are more benefits. It doesn’t melt like ice-cream but you can mix it with your favorite gelato (or even use it to correct the bad stuff), and if a stretch you can place a dollop in your steaming-hot espresso for a double pick-me-up.

But the best part of Nutella is that you can keep a jar hidden away for emergencies….like being snowed-in like we are today, or after an unpleasant Superbowl game.

Just reached for the jar…and a spoon!

February 5th is World Nutella Day (http://www.nutelladay.com/ )

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and

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Little Easter – Big Meal, Italy’s Traditional Post-Easter Sunday Picnic

A feast to make you feel like you’ve died and gone to Heaven

I grew up in the United States where we celebrated Easter this way: an egg hunt in the morning, usually indoors because Wisconsin spring weather rarely cooperated; late morning Church services; and a big lunch with family. Although, I grew up in a Catholic family, I first found out about Little Easter Monday in Italy. Perhaps, because we were mostly German.

Linda's famous lasagna

Pasquetta, or Easter Monday, is, in theory, an important religious holiday. I keep forgetting why. I’m pretty sure it has something to do with the day before––Easter Sunday–– but with all the lasagna, roast lamb, potatoes with fresh picked rosemary, artichokes, wine, and visits from friends and family, there’s never been time to talk about the spiritual meaning of the Monday after. I would like to know what the spiritual importance of Easter Monday is, but for years, just as I begin to recover from Easter Sunday, but before I find the energy to ask, we set out on the annual Pasquetta picnic. Or, because we are in Navelli, the area around L’Aquila, we start setting plates on the long table in the basement taverna. This is because of yet another spring snow storm. Sometimes you can ski in Abruzzo, less than two hours from Rome, deep into May

Pasquetta is Italy’s other picnic holiday, an old-world cousin of Memorial Day or Labor Day in the U.S. Grill-outs with arrosticini (http://wp.me/pfkhI-1W), local pork sausages, bruschetta (grilled bread with olive oil on top–– and diced fresh tomatoes in the summer), fried artichokes, lamb ribs, more lasagna, salami and pizza di pasqua (not really pizza but a semi-sweet traditional bread), aged pecorino cheese, and lots of wine. Pasquetta is one of those occasions when I prefer a chilled Cerasuolo, the rosé made from Montepulciano d’Abruzzo grapes. It goes well with the slight burning of the mountain sun on your face and the wild mixture of foods.

Easter Dinner 2010, My Plate

Good rosés, like the Cerasuolo’s from Cataldi Madonna (Ofena) or Valle Reale (Popoli) are never compromises.

This year I’ll be going easy on the wine. Pasquetta 2010 falls on the eve of the first anniversary of the disastrous earthquake that hit L’Aquila and over forty surrounding towns. The earthquake that killed over 300 people and routed tens of thousands from their homes (including us). The earthquake that seriously damaged one of Italy’s largest historical centers. The center that is still l mostly off-limits to all but firefighters and work crews clearing the rubble.

Lamb, potatoes, Pasqua 2010

We will celebrate Easter and celebrate Pasquetta. We will commemorate our city and the friends and relatives and daily life we lost at 3.32 in the morning of April 6, 2009.
We want L’Aquila, which means “the Eagle” to rise up and fly again. It’s an obvious metaphor, but then it’s also obvious that L’Aquila should be rebuilt. Not just the buildings, but its economy, traditions, and community.

– Joshua Lawrence

PS: The other Italian picnic holiday, Italy’s traditional picnic per eccellenza, is Ferragosto (August 15th). Although it, too, is an important religious holiday, its spiritual significance escapes me for the same reason––I’m too busy digesting.

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Frappe – The Martedì Grasso King

Dressing up and savouring Carnevale

Like Tim Parks, author of Italian Neighbors, I’m always a little bit jealous of my daughters and of most of the other kids growing up in Italy. One of the many reasons for this envy is that they get to experience two dress-up holidays: Halloween and Carnevale.

Carnivale pastries 2010

Halloween is a recent import to Italy, but the original Italian costume holiday is Carnevale (Carnival). The exact dates and traditions for Carnivale celebrations vary across Italy, as they vary the world over (the holiday is celebrated, mostly, in Catholic countries where romance languages are spoken). What all Carnivale celebrations have in common is a period of excess before the “going without” and piety of Lent; a day or more of eating; public celebrations; and dressing up.

Venice hosts Italy’s most famous Carnevale. Officially recognized as a public holiday since 1296, wearing masks and costumes has been big ever since. Venice’s Carnevale lasts over two weeks, with the big days stretching between Giovedì Grasso (Fat Thursday) and Martedì Grasso (Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras), the day before Ash Wednesday. Today, adults usually only dress up at private parties, but children still run the streets in costumes throwing confetti and foam at each-other and bystanders.

And, of course, there’s the food. Coldiretti, an Italian agriculture and food industry association estimates that this year Italians will collectively put on 14 million kilos of weight due to Carnevale food.

Most of this food comes in the form of fried dough like frittelle, puffy rings or balls of dough, many filled with egg or chocolate cream, and frappe, crunchy drier strips of fried dough. Frappe, or Italian Carnivale Fritters, go by many names: chiacchere (which means “gossip”), cenci (“rags”), bugie (“lies”), galani and nastrini (“ribbons”). Usually cut and fried in ribbons, the shapes, forms and condiments (powdered sugar, honey or chocolate) vary from city to city, home to home. In our house we love smothering them with locally produced honey.

Here’s one recipe for Frappe that was given to me by a friend. It serves four.

The dough

  • 350 grams of sifted flower (about three cups)
  • 50 grams of butter (about three and a half tablespoons)
  • 50 grams of sugar (a half cup)
  • 2 eggs.
  • 1 pinch of salt

Aromas and spices: most recipes call for a pinch of powdered vanilla (or a teaspoon of extract), and/or a few spoonfuls of rum or brandy. I’ve seen others with a touch of cinnamon

Frying oil

Powdered sugar or liquid honey

Mix the dough ingredients together until you get a smooth and elastic dough. Shape into a ball and place in the refrigerator. After an hour, take it out, roll it out as your would for thin Christmas cookies. Slice the dough into ribbons or the form you want. Heat the oil and slide the ribbons into it, one by one. Turn the Frappe immediately, so that they are cooked golden on both sides. Place them on paper towels to absorb the oil. When they are cool, dust them with powdered sugar or smother them in honey, to taste. If they are crispy enough they won’t absorb the honey.

Serve and enjoy ––with or without a mask!

PS: The most dangerous thing about frappe is that they take forever to go stale, so you keep eating them all through Lent

– Joshua Lawrence

For those of you reading this on Facebook or elsewhere, it was first published on carbonara.wordpress.com

Carnivale pastries (mostly frappe)

Carnivale pastries Saturday 2010

Gossip & Rags, Ribbons & Lies

Carnevale, yet another reason to eat in Italy

I’m still not used to the Italian holidays that don’t have a direct correspondence to those I grew up with in Wisconsin. Christmas is on my mental map, but The Feast of St. Steven (December 26th), Epiphany (January 6th), and Carnevale (the two weeks leading up to Ash Wednesday and Lent) sneak up on me, even after almost 20 years.

Frappe Giovedi Grasso at the Galleria Alberto Sordi - Rome

This year I was reminded it was Giovedì Grasso (Fat Thursday) when I met my friend Franco for a drink, after work, at the Galleria Umberto Sordi in Rome. The usual plate of chips and snacks was followed by an arrangement of frappe (read on to find out) and fruit.

I am told that there is a religious importance to Carnevale, and that the Catholic Church has set aside the two weeks and two days before Lent for spiritual reflection. The truth is that in most of Italy, the sacrifice of Lent is preceded by an excuse to party. Carnevale isn’t just an Italian affair, Mardi Gras in New Orleans is the best known celebration in the United States, and Carnival in Rio de Janiero usually makes the nightly news.

more and more Carnivale pastries

In Italy, the costumes and events of Venice’s Carnevale have been famous since 1296. Satiric floats are paraded out in Viareggio in Tuscany, as well as in Francavilla al Mare here in Abruzzo. The day of the festivities is sometimes different. In most places Giovedì Grasso and Martedì Grasso are big, but the traditions around Milan put the big day the Saturday after Lent begins. What is common everywhere, however, is that kids dress up in costumes and people get together and eat. Every town has a special pastry or two, ranging from special cookies to soft cream or chocolate-filled fried dough. The most amazing is the cicerchiata – a cake made from hundreds of bead-sized fried dough balls stuck together with lots of honey. And, then there are frappe.

Frappe, aka chiacchere (which means “gossip”), or cenci (“rags”), or bugie (“lies”), or galani and nastrini (“ribbons”). Like so many culinary treats in Italy, the names and exact recipes vary enormously from city to city. In essence, frappe are crunchy, fried or baked fritters, usually shaped like ribbons and covered with honey, powdered sugar or even melted chocolate.

Frappe close-up 2010

It’s not easy to watch what you eat with all these holidays. And this year, to make matters worse, Carnevale was wrapped around Valentines Day. Just add chocolate. Lots of it.

– Joshua Lawrence

For those of you reading this on Facebook or elsewhere, it was first published on carbonara.wordpress.com

Carnivale pastries (mostly frappe)

Christmas Eve Dinner – I WILL Survive.

Christmas in Italy is right around the corner, and once again we’ll be going to Zio Carlo’s for Christmas Eve lunch.
Food is an important part holiday celebrations all over the world, but in a country as famous for its love of all things edible, Natale can be over the top.
And even dangerous. I am from Wisconsin where we are known unflatteringly for our silhouette, but in Italy I am usually full to the seams half way through
Since we’ve moved down to L’Aquila from Milan about eight years ago, we’ve had a standing invitation to Zio Carlo’s house for both the evening of the 24th and the 25th (and this being Abruzzo, Christmas eve dinner has a way of lasting all the way to the feast of Saint Steven.
Zio Carlo and Zia Luciana host quite a feast along with their son Pierfrancesco and daughter Antonella. Great homemade food (even the bread), course after course, warm conversation up until Midnight, when we all gather in the living room as the youngest among us puts Baby Jesus in the Presepio, (crèche) and we exchange gifts.
And so much great food, mostly seafood. What did we have last year? Smoked Salmon, marinated octopus, an amazing salad of rucola, smoked salmon and pomegranate seeds, steamed mussels, the obligatory but scrumptious tortellini in home made chicken and beef broth…then I think I blacked out.
Dante’s third circle of hell it is not. Uncomfortable heaven?
Perhaps.

Almond Joys

One of the evergreen treats I have had the joy of sneaking into my mouth or serving to guests are my mother-in-law’s caramelized almonds.
Mandorle caramelate are basically sugared almonds, but don’t let the simplicity of the idea – or the recipe – fool you. They are one of the real tests of who has Italian cooking in their veins the rest of us, including me.
Or, as my cousin would say every time he would accidently sink an impossible put in miniature golf on the Jersey shore, “It’s all in the wrist”.
Mandorle caramelate are are a close cousin to croccante and torrone but the main difference is that they do not form sheets of caramelized sugar and nuts that are then cut into bars before they cool too much. Sugar is melted until it becomes a dark, sweet-smelling liquid. Slightly roasted almonds are then added. The skins are kept to help give them their slightly auburn coloring of the finished treat.
Le mandorle caramelate di Linda
They are left to simmer until the sugar begins to crystalized, then, when she senses it’s the right moment she starts stirring them and, when she knows it’s time, pours them over a cool, usually marble, surface so that they spread out and don’t stick together as they cool.
They are served them to guests at Christmas as well as Ferragosto, or anytime that it good to host friends, relatives or anyone who gets invited over.

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Saffron, Pancetta and Ricotta – Oh My!

It is Monday and the Saffron and Chick Pea feast is over. But just for this year. The Earthquake and the threat of rain (just a few drops) kept a few people away, but throngs of people came for the Palio degli Asini (a donkey race created as a send-up of the famous Palio di Siena horse race in that beautiful Tuscan hill-town), and, of course, for the saffron and chick pea based dishes.
This year I stuck to the saffron-based foods, having had a summer full of chick pea based dishes at my mother-in-law’s. The saffron supplì, fried balls of saffron rice, were tasty. The risotto alla milanese (rice dish made by cooking in broth and saffron) was a bit paler and more liquid than previous years.
But despite being cooked in a festival camp the Penne allo Zafferano was amazing. Once again the true Italian cooking secrets of simplicity and access to amazing ingredients won out against the adversity of mass-production. Pennette, short straight pasta similar to maccheroni were covered with a blend of fresh local ricotta cheese and saffron and simmered pancetta (similar to bacon, salt-cured but not smoked).
Great food.
On a side note, my niece daughter was in the Palio degli Asini, the donkey race that rivals the saffron as an attraction. Six teams, each with a donkey, a rider and a page (each one a boy-girl team) raced four times around a track traced out more by the crowds of laughing spectators than the plastic tape. Her donkey broke away from the pack in the last lap, only to stop a yard before the finish line and not budge. Then another did the same, stopping next to theirs, then a third, this time wandering over the finish line.
Gaia and Mario at the end of the Palio degli Asini
My niece’s ass came in second. And wee all won. Especially those of us who had the penne allo zafferano.
Gaia Palio 3
Mark your calendar for the first full weekend after the Ferragosto holiday (August 15th). See you there.