July is National Ice Cream Month! Celebrate Globally!

The story began here:

Every August, as a routinely flushed, overheated child, I would join in chorus with my perspiring cohorts, boisterously importuning, “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream!” Little did I realize that rather than conjuring dessert, I was conjugating it and probably laying the groundwork for a lifetime of fascination with foreign languages and world food.

We lived in close proximity to one of the best dairies in town; it was known for its wide assortment of locally produced natural flavors, certainly sufficient in number and variety to satisfy any palate. Perhaps my obsession with offbeat ice cream flavors is rooted in my frustration with my father’s return home from work, invariably bearing the same kind of ice cream as the last time, Neapolitan. Neapolitan, again. My pleas to try a different flavor – just once? please? – consistently fell on deaf ears. “Neapolitan is chocolate, strawberry and vanilla. That’s three flavors right there. If you don’t want it, don’t eat it.” Some kids’ idea of rebellion involved smoking behind the garage; mine was to tuck into a bowl of Rum Raisin….

There’s lots more to the story, of course. Click here to get the full scoop! 🍨
 
 

Italian Grain Pie

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If you follow me, you know that I’m a sucker for international holiday foods, sweet treats in particular. And since I live from holiday to holiday (hey, whatever works, right?), I always look forward to Easter for traditional Neapolitan Grain Pie.

For starters, don’t be deterred by its name in English; I suspect “Pastiera Napoletana” has a more agreeable ring to it. The aforementioned grains are wheat berries, and their presence is no more unusual than grains of rice in rice pudding. They’re embedded in a sweet ricotta/custard cream infused with orange blossom water and augmented by bits of candied orange peel and citron along with a touch of cinnamon; the heady aroma of orange and lemon is key to its success. The rich filling is swaddled in a delicate, crumbly shortcrust shell.

This example came from Court Pastry Shop, 298 Court St in Brooklyn; I’ve written about them here, here, and here – they’re that good.

Per favore, if you have a solid Italian bakery nearby or even a bit of a walk away (think of the calories you’ll burn!), head out there and try this delicacy for yourself while the season is still upon us. Grazie!

 
 

La Colomba di Pasqua

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Two notable celebrations of the season, Easter and Passover, are thisclose to being concurrent this year. It’s no coincidence that the Italian word for Easter (pasqua) and the Hebrew word for Passover (pesach) are closely related, although culinarily the holidays couldn’t be more disparate. During this time of year, Jewish families are expunging their homes of even the most minuscule crumb of anything leavened, and Italians are baking Easter breads like they’re going out of style.

Italy’s traditional seasonal bread is La Colomba di Pasqua (“The Easter Dove”), and it is essentially Lombardy’s Eastertime answer to Milan’s Christmastime panettone. These deliciously sweet, cakey breads, in some ways Italy’s gift to coffeecake but so much better, are fundamentally the same except for two significant distinctions: the colomba is baked in the shape of the iconic dove that symbolizes both the resurrection and peace, and the recipes diverge with the colomba’s dense topping of almonds and crunchy pearl sugar glaze. Traditionally, a colomba lacks raisins, favoring only candied orange or citron peel, but as with panettone, fanciful flavors (including some with raisins) proliferate.

The first photo shows a colomba in all its avian splendor. Frankly, I think it’s a leap of faith to discern a dove in there, but if you can detect one, you may have just performed your own miracle.


Hard pressed to see the dove? Fret not, for this photo has the cake turned upside down so the columbine form is somewhat more evident.


The third photo depicts a version that features bits of chocolate and dried peaches within and crunchy crushed amaretto cookies atop.

Just wondering: There’s no debate that American kids bite the ears off their chocolate Easter bunnies first. Do you suppose that Italian children start with the head, tail, or wings of the colomba?
 
 

Sfingi for St. Joseph’s Day

It seems like every world cuisine has its own version of fried dough – Zeppole are Italy’s contender. You’ve probably seen them at street festivals or perhaps you were fortunate enough to have grown up watching your nonna make them as she confidentially disclosed her signature special ingredient, amore, which of course elevated hers above all others. They’re usually dusted with a sprinkle of powdered sugar but on occasion are dressed with a shot of pastry cream.

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These first cousins are sfingi (pronounced SFEEN-jee), Sicily’s answer to Neapolitan zeppole, although the two are not mutually exclusive. Sfingi are fried cream puffs filled with cannoli cream and can be found in Italian-American bakeries in celebration of Saint Joseph’s Day, March 19, honoring the husband of the Virgin Mary. (BTW, I’ve seen recipes that call for baking them, but….No.) This pair, chocolate on the left, bursting with ricotta-based, cinnamon-inflected, sweet cannoli cream shot through with mini chocolate bits, came from Court Pastry Shop, 298 Court St in Brooklyn.

The inside scoop:

Crunchy crispitude.


Puffy and floofy.
 
 

Sanguinaccio Dolce

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An equal opportunity celebrant, I’m always keen to learn about traditional foods that are associated with religious holidays. Lent, the forty day period that begins today with Ash Wednesday and ends just before Easter Sunday, is celebrated in southern Italy with an unusual delicacy called Sanguinaccio Dolce, a sweet (“dolce”) dessert pudding made with pig’s blood (“sangue”) although some bakeries around these parts opt for beef blood. (For the faint of heart <groan> bloodless versions can be found.)

Now don’t go running off: if you follow me you know that I wrote a piece for Edible Queens suggesting that durian pizza is the gateway drug for durian, the much maligned tropical fruit. I propose that sanguinaccio dolce fulfills the same role for food crafted with blood as an ingredient. Numerous cultures are at home with it – blood rice cakes in China, blood pancakes in Sweden, dinuguan in the Philippines, as well as sausages in Great Britain and Ireland, morcilla in Spanish speaking countries worldwide, boudin in France, and so many more in Northern and Eastern Europe. Pretty much everywhere actually. And you also know that I only recommend truly tasty food; I have never been one to embrace the sensationalism of “Look what gross thing I just ate!” No. This is genuinely delicious.

An expertly crafted version tastes like a rich, dense, dark chocolate pudding that carries notes of cinnamon and bits of candied orange peel, pine nuts and sliced almonds. There is no hint of minerally blood flavor. It’s often served with savoiardi, crisp ladyfingers, but a spoon will suffice. The pasticciotto sports a tender shortbread crust with a kiss of lemon and is filled with sanguinaccio. These two examples came from Morrone Pastry Shop at 2349 Arthur Ave in the Bronx last year but it can be found at other hardcore Italian bakeries as well.

If, like me, you appreciate the concept of snout-to-tail cooking and decry food waste, you should look into this. But if you just want to sample the richest, most delicious Italian dark chocolate pudding you’ve ever tasted, you need to give this a chance. Unless of course you just don’t like chocolate pudding at all, in which case move along, nothing to eat here.

#bloodydelicious (couldn’t resist 😉)
 
 

Brooklyn’s Homeslice Pizzeria – Revisited

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Someone once said that the best pizza in New York is in New Haven. And no, it’s not because I went to college there; it’s because there is simply none better. Anywhere. I freely admit it: I pledge allegiance to Pepe’s for their bacon pizza and Modern for their sausage. (And of course, be sure to grab a bottle of Foxon Park’s white birch beer soda to wash it down.)

But sometimes you just can’t travel two hours to satisfy a craving. Fortunately, there is some outstanding pizza to be enjoyed in NYC as well; it’s easy to stay abreast of the best and most iconic via email missives from subscriptions to favored foodie websites. Each has its own bespoke style: there’s no mistaking a Paulie Gee’s pizza for a Kesté’s, for example, so you can’t really compare one with the next.

But even then, there are times when you don’t want to go out of your way to hit up one of those vaunted venues. Sometimes, you just have to consider the local neighborhood pizza joint, you know, the one you sail past on the way home, some of which are, um, less than stellar.

However, I’m fortunate because one, about seven blocks from my apartment, actually does a good job. (And yes, I know that by NYC standards seven blocks to a pizza parlor is a hike.) Two years ago I posted about Brooklyn’s Homeslice Pizzeria at 567 Vanderbilt Ave.

What makes them unique is their crust’s edge covered with panko crumbs that provide a crispy crunch.


That attribute in conjunction with its thin, flavorful crust, easily folded over on itself (as pizza is meant to be consumed), a slender but sufficient layer of cheese (the kind you used to peel back as a kid) and a naturally sweet and tasty tomato sauce contribute to this pie’s success.

Since I always go plain on the maiden voyage, I promised that I’d be back to try the toppings and having returned more than once, I’ve found a combination that I think is baller delicious: Bacon, Onions, and Extra Cheese (first photo and below). Now, this particular pizza with this particular configuration of toppings is as unique as any other pie I’ve mentioned and therefore should not be compared to others of note.

I do understand that the ideal topping is in the mouth of the beholder: one man’s pepperoni is another man’s anchovy, one man’s meat is another man’s poisson.

But my current comfort-food crutch notwithstanding, major props to this one!
 
 

Insalata di Frutti di Mare Revisited

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I mentioned my homemade Insalata di Frutti di Mare (Italian seafood salad) from Christmas dinner 2019 in a recent post and a reader requested that I post a picture. Since the photo came out reasonably well, I’m happy to oblige!

The foursome of shrimp, calamari (squid), polipetti (baby octopus), and scungilli (conch) playing equal roles (sometimes with mussels fifth wheeling) plus various veggies for crunch and zest is augmented by a harmonizing dressing of EVOO, lemon juice, herbs, and more.

More seasonal posts to come!
 
 

Atsa Some Sangweech!

Speaking of things that customarily grace my Christmas table, a platter of full-bodied Italian salumi, freshly baked crusty Italian bread, and an Italian cheeseboard have always taken center stage alongside my homemade insalata di frutti di mare, caponata, roasted tomatoes with smoked mozzarella, Christmas pasta salad, and more. (The word abbondanza comes to mind.) I honestly don’t know how Italian specialties specifically became the order of the day, but no one has ever complained. (They wouldn’t dare.)

Sadly, this year there would be no parties of any kind, family, friends, or curious hungry neighbors.

Back in the day, folks would sometimes take it upon themselves to fashion a sandwich tableside from savory components, and I got to thinking that since I was flying solo this year (ergo no flights of fancy), I’d make a huge sammich that would last for several days when cut it into pieces and could stand up to oven warming.

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While window-rattling Christmas music penetrated my kitchen (my antidepressant of choice these days), I constructed the two-foot long behemoth you see here. What’s in it in addition to Genoa salami, you ask? Pruhzhoot (aka prosciutto), zoopruhzaht (aka soppressata), gabagool (aka capocollo), mortadell (aka mortadella, but don’t confuse it with the ubiquitous pasta filata cheese, mootzadell) – and that’s just the meat contingent.


I limited the cheeses to the regulation provolone for sharpness and smoked mozzarella for meltiness and added a little sautéed onions and peppiz – veggies mean it’s good for you, right? The dressing was EVOO and balsamic vinegar kicked up with oregano, chopped fresh basil and the like. My secret ingredients? Agrodolce (sweet and sour) sun dried peppers from Vantia and – less an ingredient and more a technique – I fry the gabagool like bacon before I add it to the sangweech – heresy perhaps, but crunchy and delizioso.

And you know what? Christmas dinner this year turned out to be pretty merry after all!

(This one goes out with apologies to all my Italian friends. 😉)
 
 

Panettone! Pannetone! Pannettone! (2021)

Originally published in 2017, I try to update this story annually. Here’s a preview of this year’s supplement.

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And now it is 2021. As I write this, we’re still in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic accompanied by its subsequent supply-chain issues, extended shipping times, inventory shortages, and inflation. Amazon is offering my two favorite imported 2.2 pound panettoni for $48 and $71 each. Nope, not this year.

If you’ve read my story, An Eggnog Excursus, you know that part of my obsession stems from the fact that this bewitching beverage evocative of joyous childhood memories is only available for an all-too-brief period each year. Unlike eggnog, some brands of panettone are available year-round, generally dozing in supermarkets and even bodegas, but they tend to be lackluster as compared with the treasures that miraculously appear during the holiday season. It’s like envisaging a standing rib roast for Christmas dinner and then being served pot roast instead. It’s not the end of the world, but it is a world away from what you had been eagerly anticipating for the better part of a year.

In the hopes of ferreting out a middle ground, I decided to explore three upscale markets in my neighborhood, specifically, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Wegmans.

My extremely biased opinion in a nutshell:

Whole Foods proffered a sampler pack of individual size panettoni in three varieties, Traditional, Limoncello, and Double Chocolate, and was the most disappointing product, faring little better than the stuff you see gathering dust year round on supermarket shelves; they were bready with a tight crumb and not particularly sweet or flavorful.

Trader Joe’s Panettone Classico (cutely Italian-branded as “Trader Giotto’s” like their EVOO), also single serving size, was better: more open crumb, properly sweet, and amply raisined, but still, not anything to write home to Mom about.

Now, how much of those two evaluations can be attributed to the size of the product itself? Is it even possible to make a proper panettone that’s so diminutive? Or is this a case that raises the correlation vs causation question: just because they’re both baked in a pint-sized format doesn’t necessarily explain why they’re both less than stellar. Or does it?

Wegmans, however, saved the day. A larger (about six inches in diameter, serves six) virtually unbranded entry, this airy, buttery baby (see photo) boasted a proper candied orange peel+raisin count, an appropriate degree of sweetness, and an almond glaze topping that was topnotch – sweet and crunchy with plenty of almonds. Actual craftsmanship for under $20.

But wait! There’s more!!

You can be the first kid on your block to score the Panettone Bargain of the 2021 Christmas Season!!!

The secret is waiting within the updated Deep Dive story, Panettone! Pannetone! Pannettone!
 
 

Chinese-Italian Inspiration

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Other than as a source for ideas, I’m not one to slavishly follow others’ recipes; my preference is to innovate rather than replicate. (Not to mention that in doing so, no one can complain that I didn’t “get it right”. 😉) I was once asked where I find inspiration for my own concoctions, so apropos of that question, here’s a recent story:

I had been chatting with a charming woman who maintains a patch in a local victory garden. In the course of our conversation, she mentioned that she was half Chinese and half Italian. (Imagine being a kid growing up with two sets of holiday traditions – so jealous!) She offered me some Chinese long beans that she had grown which I eagerly accepted. I was pondering how to prepare them: I could adhere to some classic time-honored long bean technique but I felt inspired to do something more with them, perhaps to create a dish that might reflect the dual heritage of the person who had cultivated them.

So this was my process. Looking at the shape of the Chinese beans, long, thin, and cylindrical, it was a cinch to come up with an element from Italian cuisine that would match: a member of the spaghetti family was the obvious choice. For this application I chose bucatini (aka perciatelli) since when fully cooked it would be nearly as thick as a long bean.

Now for some vegetables: I decided that Chinese dried mushrooms (aka shiitake) and fresh Italian cremini would harmonize nicely so they became a significant component along with chopped onion and red bell pepper in the base because those are cross cultural, and garlic, of course. Lots of garlic. For a bit of protein, ground pork went into the mix since pork is common to both regions.

And a sauce to bring it all together: Was there one that made use of some ingredients associated with both cuisines? Sichuan Yu Xiang sauce would be perfect. (Yu Xiang means “fish-flavored” but don’t be misled by the phrase – it neither contains nor tastes like fish; rather this delicious blend refers to a combination of ingredients, a little sweet and sour, a little spicy and salty, often used in preparing fish.) It comprises an assortment of classic Chinese condiments including doubanjiang (chili bean paste), Zhenjiang black vinegar, Shaoxing cooking wine and soy sauce plus, the way I make it, some tomato based sauce, so that’s a loose nod to Italy.

IMHO, the dish totally worked.

That’s the cool thing about inspiration – you never know where it’s going to happen, but it always happens when you least expect it.
 
 
Only one question remains: Do you eat this with chopsticks or a fork?