TUSCANS BEARING GIFTS
The welcome wagon in Cortona is really over the top! Over the past few years, my neighbors in Cortona have given us many gifts of food welcoming us each summer. The first year a neighbor had her 6 year old son bring over a bowl of piping hot risotto, (a dish that takes time and experience to execute properly), and I was in awe. Next, baskets of tomatoes and zucchini would appear on my doorstep, enough to feed an army, followed by bottles of wine, biscotti, and even hand made lace!
This year the people of the tiny village of Cegliolo, in the foot hills of Cortona, have also welcomed us with open arms overflowing with delicious treats. This provincial village is abundant with fruit trees, vegetable patches, vineyards, olive groves, and farm animals. Rosy, our host, is a Sicilian pastry chef turned B&B owner, and was the first to pop in with two giant cups of almond granita, on one of the hottest days of summer. Rosy's father, having just picked handfuls of almonds from the tree in the front yard, filled my son's pockets with them to snack on. Later came a vibrant basil plant from Signora Calzini, la mamma of my friend Francesco, who lives a little down the road in Camucia. Bowls of warm homemade tortellini in brodo and fagoli di ucceltti have also made their way to our table compliments of our loving hosts.
This particular year though, it was our neighbor Loretta, a local Cortonese nonna, who really stole our hearts. I met Loretta one afternoon when she saw me peeking out my window trying to figure her out. Every morning when the rooster crowed, I would see her carry big crates down a path and place them on her rooftop. I was curious to find out what she was doing, but I could never get close enough to see what was inside of those crates without seeming rude. Finally, she spied me and we chatted. She was drying susine, (plums), to make into jam. We became friendly, and one morning she came over to share her special recipe for Torta di Noci, a Tuscan nut cake made with Vin Santo wine. I was told we would need nuts for this recipe, but no particular kind, so I gathered some almonds. When Loretta arrived at the house she insisted I had the wrong nuts, and almonds just would not do! We needed walnuts instead. (There are no bending the rules in Italian cooking traditions, let me tell you!) She ran home to get some walnuts, and returned with a hammer and a bundle of newspaper clutched in her hands. She placed the newspaper sack on the ground and gently opened it up, and I could see it was full of walnuts which she had just picked from an old tree in her yard. Bent over literally in a position that would have easily locked my knees and back for a good hour, and proceeded to smash the walnuts by hand, one at a time, with the hammer. Tiny as a mouse an strong as an ox, this woman!
We were now ready to start baking. Using only a wooden spoon and eyeballing the measurements of the ingredients, she whipped the batter into a perfectly fluffy consistency by hand. This simple cake had so much heart put into it and she was so excited to share the recipe with the world, (which she told me learned form her in laws many years ago), you could taste the love. Give it a try at home. It's easy and requires little preparation, and produces a light and flavorful cake with bits of toasty walnuts. Enjoy, and raise your chilled glass of Vin Santo to the little old ladies of the world who keep these traditions alive. ;)
Grateful for all of nature's bounty and the neighbor's generosity, I decided to regift a bit, baking basil shortbread cookies, almond mezzaluna cookies, lemon curd, peach jam, rosemary focaccia, escarole e fagioli, (a spicy cannellini bean soup with pork and escarole), and chicken cacciatore. We traded dishes a few nights per week and it felt like family, enjoying great food and company, the way generations have done in Italian villages since the beginning of time. In the end, while yes, I am a dual citizen of this country and spend a great deal of time here, to the Italians I am still an American tourist, so it's endearing to see how influx of tourism hasn't hardened the hearts of the locals and how welcoming they still are.
Gathering in the evenings around the communal oven in the village to make pizza and bread, bringing a bit of this and that to each other's tables, something fresh from their land or warm from their oven,...for this type of genuine, good hearted, "mangia! mangia!" (eat! eat!) attitude along with lots of hugs and kisses on both cheeks, for this, I will always be in love with Italy.
Personal experiences like these over the years in Italy, along with my own family's Sunday feasts, have inspired me to pay it forward. Joe and I will be hosting hands on cooking classes during the week, and special "Sunday Dinner with The Cicala's", both scheduled to begin in October when we return from Italy.
SEE FREE RECIPES BELOW: TORTA DI NOCI, FOCACCIA, & CHICKEN CACCIATORE.
LORETTA'S TORTA DI NOCI
7 ounces sugar
4 ounces unsalted butter
1 Tablespoon baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
12 ounces flour
Zest and juice half lemon
1 shot of vin santo
1 1/2 cup chopped walnuts
Preheat oven to 300 F
In medium bowl, cream butter and add the sugar, mixing well with a wooden spoon. Add whole eggs, then wine and lemon. Add dry ingredients last.
Sprinkle 1 cup walnuts and mix into batter and combine. Line a cake pan with parchment paper, spread better evenly in pan, and sprinkle the rest of the walnuts on top.
Bake about 30 minutes until golden. Test with a dry spaghetti for doneness.
1/2 Packet dry active yeast. (1 1/8 tsp.)
1/2 Teaspoon sugar
3 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 Cups all purpose flour
1 Teaspoon kosher salt
3 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 Sprigs fresh rosemary
A few healthy pinches of kosher salt
Preheat oven to 400 F
Dissolve the yeast and sugar in 1/4 cup warm water (90 to 110 degrees F). Let the mixture sit a few minutes, until the yeast is bubbly.
Put the bubbly yeast in medium bowl and add 3/4 cup warm water and 1 tablespoon olive oil. Add the flour, except for 1/4 cup of the total measured amount. Add the salt. Mix with spoon into a wet dough. (If the dough is still dry or seems tight, add up to 1/4 cup more warm water, a little at a time. If it seems too wet, add up to the remaining 1/4 cup flour, a little at a time.)
Knead the dough until it is soft and springy and leaves the sides of the bowl clean, about 3 to 4 minutes.
Turn the dough on a floured surface, and knead a few times to form a ball. Oil a large bowl, and toss the dough to coat. Cover with dry towel, and let rise until doubled in size, about 1 to 1½ hours.
Punch down the dough. Oil a half sheet pan with olive oil, and dump the dough into the sheet pan. Press with your fingers to fit dough to the edges of the pan. Let rise another 30 minutes, uncovered. Once the dough has risen, gently press indentations in the dough with your fingertips, about 1 inch apart. Brush with 2 tablespoons olive oil and sprinkle rosemary and kosher salt on top. Bake on 400 F until set, about 10 to 15 minutes, pull out of oven, and brush with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Finish baking until the focaccia is golden brown on the top and bottom, about 25 minutes. Cut and serve.
2 lbs boneless skinless chicken breast
2 cups flour
2 15 oz cans whole peeled tomatoes
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 medium size onion
1 large, green bell pepper
5 white button mushrooms
1 handful fresh parsley, chopped
1/2 cup white wine
Extra virgin olive oil for frying
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
In a small bowl, combine 1 cup flour and salt and pepper. Cut chicken breast into bite sized pieces and dredge in seasoned flour. Fry in batches in a few tablespoons of olive oil until lightly crisped on each side, and drain on paper towels when cooked. Set aside.
Wipe mushrooms with a paper towel to remove any debris. Do not wash under water. Chop into 1/4 inch slices and set aside.
Chop onions and peppers into 1/4 inch slices and fry in 1/2 cup olive oil until tender in a medium size pot, over medium heat. Add mushrooms and garlic cloves when onions and peppers are almost done after about 10 minutes. Add contents of the whole cans of tomatoes and stir, gently breaking up the tomatoes. Add white wine and season with salt and pepper to taste.
Let simmer 20 minutes, uncovered, then add cooked chicken to tomato sauce. Cook another 15 minutes until chicken is tender and sauce had thickened slightly. Add fresh chopped parsley and serve on it's own or over pasta, rice, or polenta.