An Italian Sponge – Simplicity that is Sublime

cake-venetianClean lines and high level function have been a hallmark of Italian design. In cooking simple ingredients well-prepared define Italian cuisine. The Italian aesthetic for simplicity in form and function combined with tradition is never better demonstrated than by the Italian sponge cake (Pan di Spagna), a simple, airy cake made with only 3 ingredients: eggs, sugar and flour…no baking powder, no butter and no oil!

The Italian sponge is used as a base for fillings and candied fruits and is key ingredient in hundreds of classic Italian desserts like zuccoto and Sicilian cassata. Pan di Spagna‘s light airy texture absorbs “like a sponge” (once cooked, it can absorb almost up to twice its weight) so it is often layered and soaked with a flavored syrups or spirits or used to soak up the juices from fresh fruit. It stacks wonderfully. Layered with a cream filling it is an impressive dessert but just as enjoyable eaten on its own sprinkled with powdered sugar.You will find its simple, delicious flavor and spongy texture a perfect base for your Italian layered or rolled cakes and desserts.

I was introduced to the Italian Sponge by my mother-in-law Marion who used it to make Italian Rum Cake, a family tradition for celebrating birthdays and many special occasions. I have never made it as well as she or my Aunt Margaret who Americanized it as the chiffon but I have learned a few secrets to perfecting a successful Pan di Spagna.

  • Use extra large eggs at room temperature
  • Use cake flour if possible
  • Beat the egg whites until tripled in volume but not dry
  • Beat the egg yolks and sugar for no less than 15 minutes; it is during this stage that air is incorporated
  • The dry ingredients must be sifted together and added on top of the egg mixture, a little at a time and deliberately folded gently together with a spatula or wooden spoon. If you pour too much flour in too fast it will sink to the bottom of the bowl
  • While the cake is baking don’t be tempted to open the oven door or the cake will deflate quicker than a Patriot’s football
  • When the cake is done, turn off the oven but leave the cake inside with the oven door slightly ajar for about 10 minutes
  • Cut the cake only when it has cooled
  • If you plan on layering the sponge, soaking the layers with a flavored syrup or liquor, do so and then wrap the layers in cling film and leave in the refrigerator overnight before spreading each layer with filling for the final assembly

There are many versions of Pan di Spagna. I have a version made with a Zabaglione Moscato Wine Cream Filling that I use in place of pastry cream or custard. It also eliminates the need to soak the layers in a flavored syrup or liquor as the creme is made with Piemonte DOCG Moscato.

Pan di Spagna with a Zabaglione Moscato Wine Cream Filling

Ingredients for the Pan di Spagna:

5 large Eggs
1 1/2 cup Sugar
1 1/2 cup Flour
(you can add 1 teaspoon Vanilla or  1/2 teaspoon Lemon Zest) as a flavoring

Directions:

Let eggs come to room temperature before starting. Butter and flour a 9″ (23 cm) cake pan. Set aside.  Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees F. Sift the flour into a bowl; set aside. Separate the eggs yolks in one bowl; whites in another. Add the sugar to the egg yolks, and whip with an electric mixer until thick. Stir in the lemon zest and vanilla. Rinse the beaters off well,  whip the egg whites to a stiff peak. Then fold the beaten egg white into the yolk mixture. Add the flour a bit at a time to the egg mixture, and fold it carefully in. Pour the mixture into the prepared cake pan, place in oven, and bake for about 20 minutes. When done, a toothpick will come out clean, and the top will be golden. Turn upside down on a wire cake rack to cool.

Assemble the Layers:

Slice sponge cake in half with a thin bladed serrated knife to form two layers.Combine stabilized whipped cream with the Zabaglione Moscato Wine Cream (according to taste)   to make a filing for the layers. Retain some of the whipped cream to be used as a frosting. Place bottom sponge layer on platter cut side up, generously spread layer with filling. Top the cream layer with another layer of sponge cake. Frost the top sponge cake layer (and sides of cake) with remaining stabilized whipped cream. Cover and refrigerate 1 hour before serving. Refrigerate any leftovers.

You may have noticed that the Italian Sponge has a Spanish name. Pan di Spagna means Bread of Spain. For nearly half a century, Spanish monarchs ruled Naples, Sicily and Sardinia. Gastro-historians credit the introduction of a Spanish influenced “sponge-like” cake to the Northern Italian table because the learned cities of the North like Parma in Emilia Romagna embraced a cosmopolitan cuisine and were influenced by the marriage of the Parmese Duchess Elisabetta Farnese to the Spanish King Philip V (1714).

Others attribute the Italian sponge to Giovanni Battista Cabona from Genoa. Cabona went to Spain in the mid 1700’s as part of the domestic entourage of the ambassador of Genoa. The inventive young baker was asked to create a new and original cake for a royal Spanish banquet. Working with basic and simple ingredients, Cabona was able to create an incredibly light and airy cake, and gave it the name Pan di Spagna, in honor of the hosting country. The cake so pleased the Court of Spain that it was renamed Génoise, in honor of the Genoese creator. Throughout Europe it is still known as Génoise, while in Italy it has maintained its original name, Pan di Spagna.

The Sister John Vianni Method of Working Clean

soaking-potWe hear a lot about “working clean” today – in other words working with efficiency and quality. Dan Charnas has written a new book about the life-changing power of “working clean” organizing your space and work using the culinary mise-en-place (setting into place) method. A system coopted from the culture of cooking that he believes will allow us to work better in life. Taught to all elementary chefs mise-en-place refers to having your ingredient list prepped and ready to go before you start cooking. Charnas thinks that his could be a worthy metaphor for life and that the principles of mise-en-place can help you manage not only your cooking but your own personal space, resources and work habits.

A sense of order that eliminates clutter. Having all your ducks in a roll equals working clean equals “clean” productive work.

If some of you think this has a monastic ring to it with a orderly sensibility it does. I experienced this first hand both in the realm of cooking and in lessons on life by Sister John Vianni during my sophomore year in high school. Working clean was the mantra of her Home Economics class which at that time (mid 1960’s) was run with a iron spoon. We were taught to prepare in advance and that there is a place for everything and everything has its place and God forbid anything should be out of place. A worthy habit for personal organization both in and out of the kitchen. Chefs from Thomas Keller to Jamie Oliver extol the virtues of a well-placed kitchen. Cooking and prepping at the same time generally leads to chaos in the kitchen. A great example of Italian-style mise-en-place can be seen in this recipe for Penne Puttanesca from a Williams-Sonoma article on The Secret to Cooking Like a Professional.

To approach the recipe in an organized fashion, pull out all the pots and pans you’ll need, a large pot for boiling the pasta and a saucepan for cooking the sauce. Set a colander next to the sink for draining the pasta. Organize your ingredients and tools, such as a cutting board, knives and measuring cups, on the countertop with small bowls for holding ingredients as they’re chopped. Be sure to set a large serving bowl nearby. Although the first step in this recipe says to warm the olive oil in the saucepan, don’t turn on the stove just yet. There’s some prep work to be done. For example, the list of ingredients specifies that the onion should be minced, the garlic sliced, and the tomatoes seeded and diced. After you’ve washed, chopped and measured out the ingredients, line them up next to the stove in the order they’ll be used: olive oil, onion, garlic, tomatoes and so forth. You’ll also want to start heating water for cooking the pasta. Now you’re ready to warm the olive oil and prepare the sauce.

You can take this one step further by having your sink filled with warm, soapy water to clean up the bowls etc as you go and wipe the counters. Then when you finish the dish and set the table the kitchen will be less cluttered and you can sit down to better enjoy your meal. Prepared, measured and organized. A mind-set that is a prelude to life. Sister John Vianni would be pleased.

Red Shrimp and Wine Glasses

Gambero Rosso Tre bicchieriIf you appreciate Italian food and wine then you have, at one time or another, encountered the Gambero Rosso (red shrimp). Not as a center of the plate entree but as a guide to the best food travel and wine in Italy. Unlike Pinocchio who wandered into the eponymous taverna where the villainous Fox and Cat trick him into paying for their supper, this Gambero Rosso won’t lead you astray when searching for the best restaurants and award winning wines when traveling in Italy.

Originally an 8-page insert about food and wine in a 1986 publication of Italy’s Communist Il Manifesto, Gambero Rosso, the “red prawn” has become the definitive guide to the tastes of Italy. Their annual 1,000-page guide to Italian wines, Vini d’Italia, is considered by many to be the Italian wine bible giving top wines, those considered extraordinary, a three glass (chalice) Tre Bicchieri rating. Gambero Rosso markers of good taste now include Three Forks for restaurants, Three Coffee Beans and Cups for coffee bars, and Three Leaves for producers of Extra Virgin Olive Oil.

Gambero Rosso has recently established Citte’ di Gusti, cities of taste,  where demonstrations, workshops, lessons and courses are offered for both professionals and amateurs with an interest and love of Italian food and wine. Gambero Rosso opened the first Citta’ di Gusto in Rome and now has centers in Naples, Salerno, Catania, Palermo, Torino and Lecce.

Italian Infused Water

Infused waters are all the rage. For those of us who are used to drinking from the tap, they make water interesting again with “spa” like benefits and healthy hydration. Store shelves and the internet are literally awash with brands, flavors, recipes and recommendations on the use and enjoyment of infused waters.

Italians discovered the benefits of water long before it was fashionable to carry around a spa water bottle. Their “infusions” were from underground springs that passed through deposits of limestone or volcanic rock absorbing nutrients and minerals along the way. A ubiquitous liter or two of bottled mineral water (d’aqua minerale) is served at the Italian table as an accompaniment to every meal. Either naturale (non-carbonated ) or gassata (with “gas” or natural carbonation) many Italian mineral waters have a devoted following. The “miraculous” waters of Italy’s iconic San Pellegrino have been appreciated since the time of Leonardo da Vinci, their mineral content thought to be of great benefit to one’s health and well-being. Today, within Italy, you can find over 600 brands of bottled mineral water, many of these are local varieties unique to the terroir of the region. Brands like San Pellegrino infuse flavors like lemon, orange, mint, grapefruit and prickly pear, Italian versions of our sodas. One of these, Chinotto, made from the Sicilian chinotto a small bittersweet citrus fruit similar to an orange is a distinctive acquired taste.

Using Italian culinary herbs like basil or rosemary you can make your own version of an Italian infused water. Place herbs in bottom of a jar or pitcher and muddle with a wooden spoon to release some of the essential oils. Fill jar with water. You can add agave, honey or a natural sweetener if you choose. Refrigerate overnight to intensify the flavor.

rosemary waterHere are a few Italian inspired combinations to try for approximately a pitcher (6-8 cups) of water. WASH FRUIT AND HERBS THOROUGHLY. I prefer using organic produce.

1 fennel bulb thinly sliced plus a few green fronds + 1 ripe but firm pear thinly sliced

4 slices lemon + 4 sprigs fresh mint (each 2 in. long, slightly crushed)
+2 sprigs fresh rosemary (each 2 in. long, slightly crushed)

1 cup strawberries (hulled and quartered) + 2 cups watermelon (cubed)
+ 2 sprigs fresh rosemary

1 cup strawberries (hulled and quartered) +2 lemon slices
+3 basil leaves

1/2 pink grapefruit (sliced thin) +2 lemons +1 cucumber (sliced)
+1/2 cup parsley

Pizza a libretto

libretto- foldAccording to the Decalogue of the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana  a/k/a the 10 Commandments of Pizza, a true Neapolitan Pizza can be recognized by several distinguishing characteristics. Like the libretto (text) of an opera, the libretto of a pizza speaks volumes about that slice of pizza you are about to put in your mouth.

The libretto or the way a slice folds is one of the peculiarities of a true Italian pizza. The dough, the ingredients, the stretching techniques, cooking aroma, appearance and the libretto are all features of a true Neapolitan Pizza. With true Italian style and attention to detail the crust exposed by folding the pizza must be “1-2 cm high, even and puffed up, golden in color and with a very few burns and bubbles”. As far as a Neapolitan pizza is concerned, you want to see a lightly blistered crust yet without strong burns. The libretto checks the part underneath. pizza crust

If New York City is a measure of how most Americans eat their pizza than a poll taken by Slice  shows that over 60% prefer pizza a libretto. Folding their pizza more for convenience than a peak at the crust. Whether you eat pizza a taglia, (pizza in hand sold by the slice as in Rome) or a combination of knife and fork and hands and fold as an uncut single whole pie served in pizzerie all over Italy – don’t forget to check the way your crust folds.  Textured, slightly springy, golden in color with a smoky flavor, slight char and lightly blistered crust, part of an individual work of art and an authentic taste of Italy.

 

Crazy for Chard

chard rainbowAs soon as the ground warms, spring time gardners prepare to sown the seeds of one of Italy’s iconic vegetable. Our Nonna’s friend, Angelo would bring us weekly bundles of chard throughout the growing season. Versatile at all stages of growth from spring to late fall, chard can be clipped early for fresh baby greens, the young stalks can be cooked like asparagus, the mature leaves cooked like spinach and larger/mature stalks added to fritters and frittatas.

Recent research has shown that chard leaves contain at least 13 different polyphenol antioxidants, including kaempferol, a cardioprotective flavonoid also found in broccoli, kale and strawberries. Another primary flavonoid found in the leaves of chard is syringic acid known for its blood sugar regulating properties. Shown to inhibit the activity of the enzyme alpha-glucosidase. When this enzyme gets inhibited, fewer carbs are broken down into simple sugars and blood sugar is able to stay more steady offering special benefits for blood sugar control.

Sometimes referred to as Swiss Chard, chard was first identified by a Swiss botanist (possibly accounting for its name). Known to the ancient Greeks and Romans it is wildly popular in the Mediterranean and in Italy Swiss Chard,  (bietola) or coste as it is called by the Piemontesi, is a used to flavor soups, pasta, pizza, meatballs, sauces, strudel, served over polenta, as a contorno (side dish) sautéed and slightly wilted with extra virgin olive oil and garlic and in the making of a torta salata (savory pie).

Rainbow Torta di Bietola (Swiss Chard Tart)

Heat  2 T of extra virgin olive oil in heavy large skillet over medium heat. Add  2 cloves of garlic; saut
 1 minute. Add 2 large bunches (about 1 lb.) of Rainbow Swiss chard (a mixture of red, white and yellow stalks) coarsely chopped leaves and stalks; sauté until excess liquid evaporates, about 5 minutes. Transfer chard mixture to large bowl. Cool slightly.  Mix in –

torta 2

1 15-ounce container whole-milk ricotta cheese

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano  Reggiano or Pecorino cheese

2 large eggs

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg

 

Position rack in bottom third of oven; preheat to 375°F. To complete you will need 1 17.3-ounce package frozen puff pastry (2 sheets), thawed. Roll out 1 pastry sheet on lightly floured surface to 14-inch square. Transfer pastry to 9-inch-diameter tart pan with removable bottom. Trim edges, leaving 1-inch overhang. Fill pastry with chard mixture. Lightly brush pastry overhang with pastry brush dipped into water. Roll out second pastry sheet to 13-inch square. Using tart pan as guide, trim pastry square to 10-inch round. Drape over filling. Seal edges and fold in. Brush with egg wash. Bake until pastry is golden brown, about 45 minutes. Cool 10 minutes.

Chianti, Casks and Irises

iris florencePerfumes as offerings to the gods to create pleasing scents have been known since the time of ancient Egypt and Greece. Centuries later floral fragrances, flower parts and by products like orris root kept barrels of beer fresh in Germany and casks of wine aromatic in France. But no one took a greater interest in the qualities of the iris flower than Italy. In Tuscany large districts are given over to the cultivation of irises. So much so that the iris became the emblem of Florence and the practice of using dried iris rhizomes for perfumery and medicinal purposes became a major industry in 19th-century Italy.

In Chianti iris flowers grow along stone walls and olive groves, filling the space between grape vines to scent the bouquets of Tuscan wine. In spring and early summer the handsome garden blooms of Iris florentina with its floppy cupped petals and pollen laden beard color the valley of the Arno and are spectacularly displayed in Florence’s Iris Garden near P. Michelangelo. Open for 19 days it is a spring sight in Italy not to be missed.iris

Cabbage Means Wintertime in Italy

pasta and cabbageAlthough my Eastern European friends may disagree and my Irish friends may wonder if I’ve had one too many shots of espresso cabbage did originate in Italy. The crinkly Savoy cabbage (cavolo versa or Cavolo Milano) dates to the early 1500’s when it was a popular wintertime vegetable in the Savoy, a region of Italy that borders on Switzerland and France. It was often sauteed with garlic and olive oil, used in soups, served alone or with rice or pasta and is one of Italy’s favorite wintertime dishes.

A rustic, toothsome pasta pairs well with braised cabbage and other vegetables making it well worth trying. We recommend tagliatelle or La Bella Angiolina Olive Leaf Pasta from CosituttiMarketPlace for a vegetal flavor that pairs well with a St. Patrick’s Day Corned Beef and Cabbage.

Savoy Cabbage and Pasta

1 tablespoon kosher or sea salt, plus more to taste
1/2 small head savoy cabbage, about 1/2 pound
1/2 cup unsalted butter
4 large cloves garlic, crushed and peeled
1/2 pound La Bella Angiolina Olive Leaf Pasta
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Chop cabbage into coarse shreds and sprinkle with salt. Allow to set for about an hour and drain squeezing to remove excess water. Melt the butter in a large skillet and add the garlic. Heat until the garlic just barely starts to color, then remove from the heat. Discard the garlic. Add drained cabbage and slowly braise until caramelized and soft. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil with the salt and boil pasta. Combine drained pasta with the cabbage in skillet. Pour additional melted butter over (if needed) and toss until all the ingredients are well mixed. Season with coarsely ground pepper and taste for salt.

The Night of the Red Underwear

red-underwear-2In Italy, New Years Eve, l’ultimo dell’anno, is celebrated with rites, rituals and events that are meant to bring good fortune, happiness and prosperity in the coming year. Derived from Roman celebrations in honor of Janus, the god of gates, doorways, beginnings and endings, New Years Eve in Italy is a time to put an end to the problems of the past and open the door to the possibilities of a New Year. And being Italian you want to ensure that you do so on the most fortuitous manner!

So wear something red, the traditional color of good fortune, on New Year’s Eve. If you’re Italian that would be red underwear! and eat grapes for good luck and prosperity and throw something old out the window.

Fill your table with regional Italian dishes that symbolize good fortune and abundance. Pork, coin shaped pasta and specialty sausages like cotechino and zampone served with lentils are traditional to the holiday. If you can’t find cotechino or a zampone (stuffed pig’s trotter), make your favorite sausage to serve with Giorgi Locatelli’s recipe for Herbed Lentil Soup

Then think about the wonders, beauty and blessings of the past year with a short “ringraziamento“, thanksgiving, and begin Capodanno 2016.

A Dose Of Italian Drama

tableThe theatrics of drama played out in our social lives might be a little overwhelming at times but a dose of drama injected into the food we serve at our tables can be a good thing. Every once in a while it’s a good idea to re-interpret a traditional skill set of ingredients in new and different ways,  stirring up conflicts with  stimulating flavors and unexpected combinations.

A dose of Italian drama begins with the  table setting. Italians take time and effort to prepare a well-laid table where there is beauty and grace in the smallest detail.  When people gather to eat in Italy it’s about celebrating life, friends, family, and culture. The tablescapes of the Italy can be as rustic as a rural casa colonica or a refined as a Renaissance villa. Digital inspiration boards like Pinterest can help you design your vision of the perfect Italian dinner party.

The menu and meal should be alluring yet approachable, structured yet casual with an element that brings a sense of unexpected amazement. Something that Italians refer to as sprezzatura, a certain sense of nonchalance; meaning to make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it. Often people think that recipes have to be complicated to be good. Italians typically focus on the quality of the ingredients rather than the number of ingredients. So choose a centerpiece dish that is as impeccably crafted as a well designed Brioni suit. 

Above all remember that the purpose of food is to “delight the palate and cheer the spirit”.  Food can be very evocative. Capitalize on the cuisine of Casanova’s Venice, Italy’s Lake District, the seaside villages along the Italian Riviera, the hill towns of Tuscany and Umbria, the vineyards of Piemonte, the trattorie of Rome and the piazze of Florence. A dose of drama at the table elevates the shared and enjoyable experience of dining.  Here is a topping combination for a dramatic pizza that  will have your family and friends wondering at what Italian cooking school you’ve been studying.

pizza and lemons

Topping Combinations for a  Meyer Lemon, Smoked Mozzarella and Basil Pizza

8 ounces smoked mozzarella, pinched into bite-size pieces
2  Meyer lemons (ends trimmed), each cut crosswise into 8 very thin slices
About 3 tablespoons olive oil, for drizzling
8 to 10 basil leaves
2 ounces freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano cheese