Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Cooking with Italian Grandmothers

pine nut biscuit cake

For my birthday this year I received a lovely book titled Cooking with Italian Grandmothers:  Recipes and Stories from Tuscany to Sicily by Jessica Theroux.  Since I was fortunate enough to have not just one, but two Italian Grandmothers, the title is endearing to me.  But whether they were Italian, Jewish, Irish or Polish (etc..) most of us have fond memories of our Grandmother's cooking: the nostalgia that old family recipes have and how they survive with each generation is priceless.

The author, Theroux, traveled throughout Italy for over a year and spent weeks with each of these fascinating Grandmothers, cooking in their kitchens, learning their secrets and creating with them their culinary specialties.  Each chapter focuses on one woman, the food she is "famous" for and the Italian region in which she lives.  Most of the women have lived in the same town and a few the same house all their life.  Some are farmers and one Grandma even grows and raises all the food she and her family needs save for salt, sugar and coffee. She even makes her own soap from "last year's olive oil."

The photos in the book are beautiful and the stories of the women and the land they love are heartwarming.  The theme that carries through the book is that the food they prepare, from local ingredients, and share with those they love does so much more than fill a hungry stomach.  It heals, nourishes and provides pleasure and of course conversation. 

One simple thing Theroux said that made all the difference in her cooking was, "Cooking with love.  It's a very interesting concept.  What I learned there was that...in the act of cooking, you're evoking the memory and thought of someone you love and transferring that to the food.  It sounds very simple, but more than any technique I have ever learned it profoundly changes the food."

So far, I have only tried one recipe from this book, but I've made it a few times.  It's the Pine Nut Biscuit Cake:  it's more cookie-like than cake, easily made from simple ingredients and it's delicious.  I love adding savory, fresh herbs to sweet concoctions, and this recipe does just that with the addition of fresh rosemary.  One centenarian Grandmother made this, a favorite dessert from her long-ago childhood, for Theroux when she was feeling a bit homesick.  How sweet.
I'm looking forward to trying more recipes from this wonderful book.

Pine Nut Biscuit Cake

1 stick (1/2 cup) butter, softened
1/3 cup sugar, plus 1 tablespoon
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract (this was my addition, not in original recipe)
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh rosemary ( I used 1 Tablespoon)
1 egg, separated, 1 egg yolk
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cup flour (I used 1 cup white flour and 1/4 cup whole-wheat pastry flour)
1/2 cup plus 2 Tablespoons pine nuts

1.)  Heat oven to 350 degrees.  Cream together the butter and 1/3 cup sugar in medium bowl;  stir in lemon zest, rosemary, 2 egg yolks, vanilla and salt.  Stir in flour and 1/2 cup pine nuts. (You many need to use your hands to form a workable dough.)  Using your knuckles, press dough as evenly as possible into a buttered and floured 9-inch round cake pan.  Cover tightly with plastic wrap; let dough rest 30 minutes at room temperature or up to 24 hours in refrigerator.

2.)  Just before baking, brush with egg white, sprinkle dough with remaining 2 Tablespoons pine nuts and 1 Tablespoon sugar.  Bake until the thin cake has turned a light nutty brown and pulls away from edges of the pan, about 40-45 minutes.  Set aside to cool; slice into thin wedges.  Enjoy!

"The Greatest Wealth is Health" - Roman Poet Virgil


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  2. I bet rosemary added a beautiful flavor to this pie. It looks really tempting!

  3. Hey! First time here.. And you have a nice blog! :) The photos look good.
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