Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Italian Christmas Cakes: Panettone and Struffoli

Being a dual nationality family means that Christmas traditions get mixed up. We have taken the bits we most enjoy of our Christmas and put them to together to give our daughter a fused tradition all of her own.  Turkey is not so popular in the family so food seems to be Italian, also Enzo does the cooking and I am certainly not complaining. Fish is eaten on Christmas Eve and meat on Christmas day.

I have always loved a traditional English Rich fruit Cake with Almond paste and Royal icing. The harder the icing the better as far as I am concerned. Delia Smith always managed to guide me through the Christmas baking. When we lived in London I rather dismissed Panettone as lightweight with its golden sponge and sparse candied fruit and sultanas compared to our dark far heavier wintrier alternative.  My arrival in Italy has changed my opinion. First I swear they are fresher here. I read today that the Pope gave panettone baked by prisoners in Padua as Christmas presents and this huge puffed up cushion of a cake is a perfect breakfast over the festive season. I am now going to risk the wrath from all purists by saying: I actually prefer industrial ones to those made by patisseries. Practically nobody bakes them at home as they require to be proofed 3 times over a twenty-hour period.  You also need a large oven as they rise and rise. Different regions have different cakes but the entire peninsula eats Panettone, which originated in Milan.

I must confess that I have stopped making Christmas cake since my arrival partly because all the ingredients aren’t available here and so rather than adapt the recipe I have adopted local habits, besides, truth be told it is an excuse to be just plain lazy and what girl wouldn’t change her habits to eat wonderful Neapolitan goodies cooked by her man. Struffoli are the Neapolitan must for Christmas. These home - made deep fried dough balls coated in honey and flavoured with orange and lemon just melt in the mouth and my daughter loves helping her father to make them. For the recipe and method visit Enzo’s blog at http://lemonsandolives.blogspot.com/

They are also great with a sweet Prosecchino to toast the New Year so just it just remains for me to say: Salute
Auguri e Buon Anno
Celia Prosecchino

Friday, December 24, 2010

Lucca Christmas Windows

Here in Lucca if you look at the luxurious windows you would not think there was a crisis. It seems the locals are not spending as much this year but the city and the shopkeepers haven’t stinted on the decorations.

Buone Feste a Tutti

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Lucca Winter Wonderland

The residents of Lucca Centro Storico generally admire the snow capped hills and mountains while taking their constitutionals on the walls.  This week Lucca city become a winter wonderland in its own right. Those stranded in the city didn’t complain too much but enjoyed the rare site of Lucca’s main piazzas under a thick blanket of snow.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Presepe (Nativity Scenes) in Naples and Tuscany

The annual crib exhibition in Bagni di Lucca and the competition for the best Nativity scene in Benabbio our village, makes my heart flutter and I begin to feel festive. The bright lights of Lucca or Florence just don’t have this effect on me but these perfect mini scenes often complete with moving figures baking bread or trying to forge a piece of metal, running streams and flickering fires  make me feel that childhood Christmas magic return.

The tradition of setting up a crib or presepe as it is called in Italy, apparently goes back to Saint Francis of Assisi in 1223. San Francis inspired by a pilgrimage to Bethlehem, recreated the nativity scene during a mass, using the congregation. These living cribs or presepi viventi are still popular in many Tuscan villages. The whole community gets involved. The village becomes the backdrop; everybody dresses up and the old crafts are demonstrated to create the atmosphere. Food is served, as at any festa, well this is Italy after all. New comers to these small communities are just as enthusiastic, so the real spirit of Christmas comes alive with villagers of different nationalities and religions all joining in.
From these living presepi developed the idea of creating nativity scenes using statues in churches and homes.

My heart in Italy is divided between two places, beautiful romantic Tuscany where we live and Naples, my husband’s passionate and complex city. Both have strong and very different traditions when it comes to presepi.

In our Tuscan home, we therefore have a Neapolitan crib using figures that have been in my husband family forever. He made many of the props, such as fish and vegetables, as a child. Here in Benabbio the other village cribs are rural and pastoral but ours is a riot of life. Neapolitan presepi are often made using contemporary figures. The Vatican apparently wasn’t too happy when Silvio Berlusconi our slightly wayward prime minister appeared. Figures such as Obama and pop stars are also readily available from the stores in the famous road, Via San Gregorio Armeno right in the heart of Naples city.

These craftsmen and woman are continuing a tradition, which reached its golden age in the 18th century. Happily in the last few years there has been a revival and I just love picking up figures in this packed and exotic street. Like everything Neapolitan the presepe is full of symbolism. At whatever tangent your imagination may take you certain characters must be present for example:
Benino or Benito- who is always represented asleep, often under a little bridge with reference to the sleeping shepherd who announced the birth of Jesus while asleep. Tradition also says that he is dreaming of a presepe.
Cicci Bacco– drives a cart laden with barrels of wine. The wine recalls the one used in the Eucharist, but also the name Bacco (Bacchus) is a reference to the Roman god of wine.  
The fishmongers- symbolizes the catching of souls.
The Zampognari – are Italian bagpipers and in the presepi two shepherds playing at the entrance of the cave represent them.
The scenography is as important as the personages:
The market setting represents the months of the year by trades. The chestnut seller represents December.
The bridge is symbol of the transition between life and death.
The presepi have become more and more complicated often have working mills with running water, flickering fires and moving figures.

It is this busy market scene I love. One year I asked by brother-in-law, who still lives in Naples, why he hadn’t done a presepe with his children and he replied: “ I don’t need to, I’ve got one outside the window” and this is the point, these presepi are a social record as well as nativity scenes giving wonderful historic tableaux of Neapolitan life.

The tradition in our nook of Tuscany is completely different and much nearer to a traditional nativity scene.   The custom of “figurine” as the statues are know are made from plaster in Bagni di Lucca and Media Valle, rather than terracotta, which is used in Naples. The craft of producing these figurine began in 1300 when the nuns in the local convents started making little statues of baby Jesus, known as “stucchini” because they were molded from stucco.  The Dominican order first started to work with the local population. When the convents closed the production continued. Later with the diffusion of the presepe, first in Europe then Australia and America other personages for the crib were added. These makers called themselves “stucchinisti”. Over the centuries the industry became so successful that some of the makers emigrated to set up factories abroad.  Like in Naples this art has resisted. In the valley there are large factories but also small workshops. In Benabbio you can peep inside kitchen doors and see home workers crouched over these tiny figures meticulously painting them by hand. Like all industries the “stucchini” have adapted and expanded so that immature towers of Pisa are produced as well as models of dinosaurs for the Natural History Museum in London. I was also told that Fontanini one of the big manufacturers in the valley supplied the nativity figures used in the movie Home Alone.

We are all now putting the finishing touches to our cribs by collecting moss and bark or constructing complicated grottos. My father-in-law has been dispatched to buy more sheep. Benabbio will soon become an enchanted Christmas village.

Photographs by Garagolo, Kilo and Cammarota

Monday, December 6, 2010

Master Chef

I have mentioned before that the real cook in our family is Enzo, my Neapolitan. My daughter says that his most important job as a Dad is not helping her to unravel a sticky ancient Greek phrase or stubborn algebra problem but having a wonderful plate of pasta on the table served with hugs when she gets home from school.

However, I am the one in the house who likes to turn my hand to desserts and therefore jumped at the opportunity to attend a cooking demonstration by Chef Gianluca Pardini from the Associazione Cuochi Lucchesi, a professional chef, international teacher and consultant on Italian cuisine.

I have never attended a cooking seminar before and my first delight was to step into a lecture theatre, which was a kitchen. Somehow seeing the raked seating, an audience of young aspiring chefs and amateur cooks all with a passion for cooking and eating, was very comforting in this age of fast food. It turned out that in this small city most people knew each other and I was soon enfolded into the friendly atmosphere.
Gianluca Pardini is a charming man and a seasoned teacher. His manner was relaxed and gioval. Chestnuts had been the theme of the weekend at the Lucca
“Il Desco“ food festival, so he chose to demonstrate a recipe that he had developed, a Lucca twist on crepes or crespelle in Italian. The recipe was chestnut flour crepes filled with ricotta and pine nuts served with a caramelized orange sauce and garnished with rosemary.

Here in Lucchesia we are very big on chestnut flour. I have become passionate about this product since arriving in this area. Historically in the countryside chestnuts have kept the population from starvation. Chestnuts flour has a higher protein content than wheat. To make these crepes a small percentage of wheat flour was used principally for aesthetics, because chestnut flour has no gluten, therefore when you roll the crepes they tend to break. The gluten in the wheat flour makes them more elastic. For Celiac sufferers missing out the wheat doesn’t detract from the taste, but the crepes will just look a little more rustic. Gianluca’s  easy chat while he was preparing the crepe mixture meant he  had no difficulty in finding volunteers to help him make the crespelle, so he had enough for us all to try one .  One of the helpers was a teenage boy, who at first appeared tense but after the maestro had told him to move the mixture around the pan as though it was a joystick, he relaxed and ten minutes later was even tossing them like an old pro.

How often I have watched in wonder as chefs on telly, glide with their knives cutting faster than the eye can take in. The live performance was art, orange-rind was sliced, the knife seemed to hardly move as tiny equal slithers were produced. This perfect execution of the technique of the knife made me feel very cack handed and think what fun it would be to learn these skills and attend one of his classes. He gave us all confidence by pointing out that no one had ever lost a finger on one of his courses!

While the helpers were busy producing the crespelle, the chef mixed the ricotta filling and made the caramelised orange sauce. 

The combination of fresh orange against the cool ricotta and rich wintery chestnut flour of the crepelle was exquisite. This isn’t my recipe so I can’t pass it on but why not take an ordinary crepe recipe but use chestnut flour and create your version. The Maestro believes recipes should only be used as a feed to the imagination. Outside Italy chestnut flour can be found in specialist Italian stores and on the Internet. I think Gianluca should have been at the talk the week before, where the Lucchesi were accused of not being innovative, because the crepes were certainly a Lucca variation on a theme.