Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Our family connection to Italian food

Thursday, April 28
My mom was not Italian, but she lived with my dad’s family for about eight years after she and my dad married, so I think she could have fooled a lot of people into thinking she was. She learned to cook my dad’s favorite family foods. Pasta asciutta, fried zucchini, biscotti and Easter cake come quickly to mind. I truly believe that I caught a significant part of my interest in Italy from her. I can't remember any specific things she said about being or not being Italian, but I have the impression that she considered herself at least half Italian by adoption. So that would make me three-quarters Italian instead of half, or at least it would explain why I grew up with a pride in all things Italian.

Since I began coming to Italy fairly regularly in 1996, I have discovered that biscotti is a more general word that covers many types of Italian cookies, and the recipe my nonna taught to my aunts and mom was actually a specific type of biscotti made in Toscana called cantucci, or cantuccini. A dry and hard cookie made with almonds and anise seeds, it has since become popular throughout Italy as well as America. Italians like to dip their cantuccini into a sweet wine called vin santo.

The pasta asciutta recipe passed on from my Tuscan nonna is a meat sauce that is not as moist as most pasta sauces, hence the name asciutta, which means dry. My mom taught me the recipe, and though I am very fond of it, I have not made it for many years. It includes chunks of either rabbit or chicken meat mixed in, usually chicken, since rabbit is hard to come by in the states. Lucy does not share my fondness, probably because the sauce includes ground chicken livers, and so I do not ask her to make it for me.

Easter cake in Italy is called colomba, the Italian word for dove, and it is a dry cake sometimes made in the shape of a dove. It has almonds and sugar on top and raisins inside.The cake my mom learned to make was very different, and we knew it was not actually called Easter cake, but we gave it that name because of the season in which it was traditionally served in our family. I have made this for my family at Easter, as have my sister and brother for their families, and it is the traditional food that I think all of our children most recognize as part of the family culinary heritage. Yet it is the one food on the Spadoni family list that I have not seen in Italy--until today. We are walking together in Camaiore and stop in the Pasticceria Del Dotto to buy gelato, and there they are, behind the glass--cakes that look almost exactly like my the ones my mom made.

We ask the nonna who is obviously the head chef here what it is called. Her grandson helps with the translation. Zuccotto, she says, and it is a special recipe she has been making since 1948, which does not qualify it to be the same as my own nonna’s cake. In fact, it is not the same inside, as zuccotto has a semi-freddo filling. The cake should be kept frozen until an hour or less before serving, she says. I tell her that my nonna made a cake that looked like hers, but it was not semi-freddo inside. Ah, she explains, that would probably be buccellato di Lucca, which is made with bread, candied grapes, anisetta and crema, a custard filling. The bread is soaked in liquor and colored, she says, but she cautions that there are many varieties because each cook likes to add a personal touch.

Even though the zuccotto is not buccellato, because it looks the same as our Easter cake, we buy one and take it home to try out. The outside layer of thin strips of bread or cake has been dipped in a sweet liquor. Inside it seems kind of like whipped and chilled chocolate and vanilla pudding, very rich and filling. Everyone has two helpings, and we agree it is delicious. Then I look up buccellato di Lucca on the Internet and find recipes for a cake that is baked in the oven, and it does not look at all like my mom’s Easter cake. However, as I read on, I find that the pieces of buccellato can be used to make a "Lucchese style soup" composed of cut up pieces of buccellato soaked in vin santo and then put together in alternating layers with cream, sugar and strawberries. That sounds very much like the cake my mom made, though she substituted lemonade for the vin santo, did not add strawberries and used a custard pudding mix for the cream filling. So my nonna’s cake is not really buccellato di Lucca, though it was probably first made using buccellato, but I don’t really know what its proper Italian name is. I will continue to call it Easter cake, I think, and just be thankful to my nonna and mom for passing along this wonderful traditional treat with their own special variations.

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