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I may think I have an easy web-site to navigate. But, a couple of weeks ago, I realized how hard it is for some people to find what they are looking for when I was making a personal appearance at Bloomingdale’s in Short Hills, New Jersey. A listener came by to scold me that I had not, as I said I would, put Suzanne Hamlin’s macaroni and cheese recipe in The Maven’s Diary. I knew I had. I knew it was there. Yet he insisted that I had not, and he walked off in a huff.
I hope the new recipe indexes I am working on now will help those of you who can’t find recipes I say are here. Unfortunately, the search engine software I use comes through only once a week (on Fridays I believe) so that the search box on the upper left side of any page with the red border will work only for recipes on the site for more than a week.
Meanwhile, let me point out that there are several recipes archived in The Maven’s Diary that are appropriate to Passover and Easter. With spring coming tomorrow, I know those holidays are beginning to be on your mind. You can find all the following recipes by going to The Maven’s Diary and clicking on Archive 2000. Once there, you will see the year divided into months. Click on the entry you want. (Sorry, but there are year 2001 entries mixed in with the March 2000 entries. My webmaster is working on that to correct it.)
Abe Lebewohl’s Matzoh Balls, from the famous and dear late owner of the Second Avenue Deli, appeared in the Maven’s Diary on April 16, 2000.
Matzoh Buttercrunch, the delicious candy from Montreal-based maven Marcy Goldman (www.betterbaking.com) that caused a sensation among my Jewish listeners last year, appeared on April 5, 2000.
My Family’s Passover Walnut Cake, which I intend to try with hazelnuts this year, appeared on March 15, 2000. Please read the whole entry, not just the recipe, before baking the cake. You’ll see what I mean when you do.
Ann Nurse’s Famous Easter Ham, which she is making again this year for her perpetually sold-out James Beard Foundation Easter Brunch, was in the diary item dated April 27, 2000.
Pastiera Rustica di Tagliolini, a recipe from my book Naples At Table, is one of my favorite dishes to make for a buffet (as in Easter brunch buffet) and it ran in the Diary on April 10, 2000.
Serves 4 to 6
I know this from my own cooking, and all
good cooks will identify: It is most often the dish you slap-dash
together out of desperate necessity (and usually leftovers) that
is the biggest triumph. How many times have I berated myself for
not writing down exactly what I did when throwing dinner together
from what’s lurking in the back of the refrigerator and cupboard?
(On the other hand, I have, indeed, written many down and they are
collected in “What To Cook When
You Think There’s Nothing in the House To Eat,” to be re-published
by HarperPerennial in February.)
Which brings me to Cobb Salad: One of the
most famous dishes in American culinary history was created on the
spur of the moment.
Cobb salad was created at the Brown Derby
in Hollywood. Here’s the official story … or legend, if you will
… as recorded by the Brown Derby itself:
“One night in 1937, Bob Cobb, then owner
of The Brown Derby, prowled hungrily in his restaurant’s kitchen
for a snack. Opening the huge refrigerator, he pulled out this
and that: a head of lettuce, an avocado, some romaine, watercress,
tomatoes, some cold breast of chicken, a hard-boiled egg, chives,
cheese and some old-fashioned French dressing. He started chopping.
Added some crisp bacon — swiped from a busy chef.
“The Cobb salad was born. It was so good,
Sid Grauman (Grauman’s Chinese Theatre), who was with Cobb that
midnight, asked the next day for a ‘Cobb Salad.’ It was so good
that it was put on the menu.
“Cobb’s midnight invention became an
overnight sensation with Derby customers, people like movie mogul
Jack Warner, who regularly dispatched his chauffeur to pick up
a carton of the mouth-watering salad.”
Since 1937, more than 4 million Cobb salads
have been sold at Brown Derby restaurants, according to the Brown
Derby Restaurant Group, which, now that the two original Hollywood
restaurants have closed, is what the company calls itself. It licenses
the restaurant name for merchandise (including bottled Cobb salad
dressing), as well as to Disney, which opened a reproduction of
the original Brown Derby in Orlando, Florida, in 1989 and, in 1990.
signed a 20-year agreement for Brown Derby restaurants in Tokyo,
Paris and Anaheim, California. You can read all about The Brown
Derby and its glamorous customers in The
Brown Derby Restaurant: A Hollywood Legend, which includes many
of the Derby’s recipes.
Footnote: There’s also a legend
about how the Brown Derby got its name: One night, Herbert Somborn,
an ex-husband of Gloria Swanson, remarked — speaking of the mood
of Hollywood in the roaring 20s — that “You could open a restaurant
in an alley and call it anything. If the food and service were good,
the patrons would just come flocking. It could be called something
as ridiculous as the Brown Derby.” Hence, a restaurant shaped like
a hat opened near Hollywood and Vine in 1926.
Cut lettuce, half the watercress, chicory
I have been doing some spring cleaning, clearing my desk, making room for more clutter. What I have here, among chits of paper to remind me of something, email printouts, business cards, and whatever, are a number of menus from restaurants I keep meaning to tell you about. So here it is.
First, I must confess that I have very little interest in new restaurants in Manhattan. My friends tell me about them. I read about them in the New York Times, in New York magazine, and in Time Out, and whenever I am hearing about them or reading about them I am thankful that I no longer have to eat in them. I mean, not being on the radio or in daily newspaper print — and for the first year in 36 years — I am very, very thankful that I don’t have to be a restaurant know-it-all anymore. I get to eat at home, which is where I mainly like to eat. Incidentally, too, although I am eating very well at home, I have been dropping weight almost painlessly because I am not sitting in a restaurant for 2½ hours every night. Well, it helps that I am exercising more regularly, too.
However, I have been eating in Brooklyn restaurants because I am still reviewing for BKLYN magazine, and I live here. It’s convenient. And it’s significantly less expensive than eating in Manhattan. I can afford it.
Here in Park Slope (I am answering what I know is your next question), I have many favorites.
I am partial to Tempo for special occasions, or when I want to show off how sophisticated Brooklyn can be. The menu is eclectic with Italian and other Mediterranean leanings. The service is absolutely professional, but friendly. The room is stylishly spare and contemporary. The sound level and comfort level are perfect.
I love Bonnie’s Grill for hamburgers and the best, the best, the best buffalo chicken wings, not that I eat chicken wings that often. I usually sit at the counter of Bonnie’s, and watch the ballet of the short order cook. I have always enjoyed doing that. And the beer. Whatever’s on tap, which is always something different and interesting.
I love Al Di La, but the whole city seems to love Al Di La’s mostly Venetian style food. You hardly need me to tell you about it.
I love Osteria Convivium, where they have a great steak (for two), great salt cod dishes many delicious Italian, Spanish and Portuguese things to eat in a country house atmosphere. Interesting Iberian wine list, including sherrys and ports. And Convivium’s romantic garden must be open already.
I love the Red Café, a tiny place where the owner is the chef and he just cooks simple food that suits his fancy, and many others, including mine. The room is sophisticated: on the red walls are hung black and white photos of famous reds – both of hair (Lucille Ball) and political persuasion (Karl Marx). The cooking is more or less homey, sometimes even a little trendy.
I love Brooklyn Fish Camp, an outpost of Mary’s Fish Camp in Greenwich Village. It is a nearly perfect restaurant, and I only use the word “nearly” to hedge my bets because something always has to go wrong – everywhere, anytime – and I don’t want you saying “Schwartz said it is perfect, so what’s up?” I always try to order the salt shrimp for the table, but be prepared to crunch through the shells, too. Don’t peel them. It’s the only way to go. The shellfish bouillabaisse is great if you like spicy, which I do. The classic New England lobster roll is famous, and it comes with a mountain of great shoestring fries. The lobster pot pie is pretty wonderful, too, and there is always a list of the fresh catch prepared in various ways, even just plain as plain. A lot of great food here in a simple room with an open kitchen and professional friendly service. There’s a big garden here, too.
Those are just my favorites at the north end of Fifth Avenue, and the list doesn’t include some of the terrific places further south on Fifth – like the acclaimed Stone Park Café (stars from the Times, reviewed in the Michelin Guide); Belleville, a good French bistro with very popular outdoor seating; the Mexican Sandwich Shop, where everything is a quesadilla (I like the shredded duck); the Chip Shop, a fish and chips joint where my friend the shepherd’s pie aficionado actually enjoys the shepherd’s pie more than the fried fish. But, if you ask, he’ll tell you the best sheepherd’s pie is at the Park Slope Ale House on Sixth Ave., where we both adore the manager, Kristyn, and go for her as much as for the food.
My other favorites in what we now seem to call “brownstone Brooklyn” are Downtown Atlantic on Atlantic Ave. near Hoyt St., where you can get everything from a wonderful hamburger to a trendy plate (and great jazz on Sundays). Downtown also has a retail bakery that carries some of the best baked goods in the entire city, including the only cupcakes that the New York Times testers really liked. I go for the chocolate banana cream tarts myself.
Down at Fulton Landing, where the amazing, glamorous and elegant River Café is still going strong at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, is a more modest restaurant I love – 25 Front Street, its address. It also has a garden, and it is also the sister restaurant to 12th Street Bar & Grill, on 12th St. and Sixth Ave. in Park Slope, which is another Park Slope favorite. It has a particularly good three-course dinner special – I think about $22 these days.
There’s also Ici on Dekalb Ave. in Fort Greene, where the eclectic menu is hard to characterize, but suffice to say it is being cooked by a young Mexican-American chef from Austin, Texas, who has French culinary training and Italophile tendencies. I like everything, including the spare dining room (and another garden).
Frankies Spuntino 457 on Court St. in CarrollGardens, may attract the trendiest crowd in Brownstone Brooklyn. I hear that there have been Heath Ledger-Michele Williams sightings there. The couple lives nearby. I go for the food, which is essentially southern Italian and conducive to sharing and grazing – spuntino is a word for snack in Italian — although I can’t say it also isn’t fun to pretend I belong in this room full of attractive under 40s. Yet another wonderful Brooklyn garden.
I have to say that Sette on Seventh Ave. and Third St. in Park Slope also attracts a very attractive, vivacious young crowd. I hear they have improved the noise problem they had when they opened, so now I am eager to get back and enjoy the food, which I’d have to call creative Italian-American. And terrific.
Enough for now. If I continue with my adventures to restaurants outside the brownstone zone this will become entirely too long and tedious to read. I promise to continue soon.
Meanwhile, Mother’s Day is coming up and it is the second biggest cookbook-buying holiday of the year, closely following Christmas. Permit me to remind you that a cookbook written by me, especially if inscribed by me to the recipient, makes a very nice Mother’s Day gift. My cookbooks still in print are Arthur Schwartz’s New York City Food: An opinionated history with legendary recipes, Naples at Table: Cooking in Campania, and Soup Suppers. Clicking on any of the preceding titles will take you to Amazon, where you can purchase the book, then forward the receipt to me at email@example.com. I will send you (or the recipient – you tell me where to send it) a book plate made of handmade Amalfi paper and sporting my personal stamp, as well as personalized greeting. I am leaving for Italy on May 6, so I will have to receive the receipts very soon in order to get them out.
I suppose the subject of migliaccio has come up several times lately because in some Italian-American families it is traditional for Easter.
The word migliaccio means pudding, derived from the Latin word for millet, the grain. In antique times, migliaccio was porridge or gruel made from millet. Today, it is different things in different parts of Italy, although I believe it is a word used mainly in the south of Italy. It can be a savory or sweet pudding, and it can be made with semolina (the flour of hard wheat) or cornmeal, or, in one case I know, from pasta. That case, the migliaccio di Ischia, which is capellini (angel hair) baked with eggs, milk, sugar and candied orange peel, is in my book Naples At Table. It’s a recipe from the Calise family, who own the largest and best pastry shop and cafe on the island of Ischia, although it is a homey dessert, not something the Calise make or sell in their elegant shops. (An interesting side note: There is a very good Italian restaurant on Henry St. in Brooklyn Heights called Noodle Pudding, which is called that because the owner is from Ischia and his last name is Migliaccio. Not knowing that the connotation of Noodle Pudding in New York would be Jewish kugel, he translated his name to what he knew Migliaccio to be back in Ischia.)
The savory migliaccio I know is essentially polenta (corn meal mush) baked with eggs, pork crackling or bits of ham, dried sausage, pancetta (Italian bacon), like that. It can be very heavy and it is not made much these days in Naples and surrounding area, the place from where it hails.
When I was asked about a sweet mulyach by my friend Marie Bianco, one of Newsday’s food columnists, who used the dialect pronunciation of one of her readers, I was at something of a loss. I didn’t have a recipe, although I knew it existed. I decided to put the question out to my radio listeners, but first I did a little book research and found the following recipe in my friend Michele Scicolone’s La Dolce Vita, her book on Italian desserts. When I recited it on the radio, a number of people called to say that it was essentially the same as their family’s recipe. It is from Michele’s aunt Loretta, who I happened to meet last year – a charming, pretty woman. It is made with farina (cream of wheat breakfast cereal), not semolina or cornmeal. I think this is so because when Loretta’s family came to the U.S., semolina, which is the grain they probably used in the old country, was not available. They substituted farina, just as, to offer just one other example, many Italian-Americans make their Easter grain pie, called pastiera with barley or rice instead of whole wheat berries – because the whole wheat used to be difficult or impossible to get.
Interestingly, while on the radio talking about migliaccio, my friend Maurizio De Rosa, who grew up in the Vomero section of Naples, right in the city, called to say he had never heard of the sweet version of migliaccio, only the savory. I have two possible explanations for this: 1) The sweet pudding was not made in the city of Naples itself, only in the nearby hinterlands (Italy is that regional, yes), and/or 2) migliaccio is such an old-fashioned dessert that it was no longer being made by the time Maurizio was born in the mid 1960s. There are many dishes that Italian-Americans perpetuate that are no longer made in Italy.
P.S.– It is now May 1, and yestereday I learned from my house guest, Giuliana Di Lucia, who lives in Salerno, that pastiera has long-been made with rice in the southern section of Salerno province called Cilento. This is just to set the record straight: Rice was apparently not merely a substitute for whole wheat beries that was made by Italian Americans who couldn’t get the grain.
Aunt Loretta’s Cheesecake
Makes a 9-inch round, serving about 12
6 large eggs, at room temperature
3 cups (about 1 1/2 pounds) whole-milk ricotta
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon grated orange zest
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1 tablespoon orange liqueur
2 cups milk
1 cup water
3/4 cup uncooked farina
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup finely chopped candied citron
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9- by 3-inch springform pan.
In a large bowl, beat the eggs until foamy. Beat in the ricotta, sugar, orange and lemon zests, and the liqueur.
In a medium saucepan, combine the milk and water, and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Add the farina in a fine stream, stirring constantly. Stir in the salt and cook, stirring, for 3 minutes, or until thick and creamy.
Stir the cooked farina into the ricotta mixture, then stir in the citron. Pour into the prepared pan.
Bake for 1 hour and 10 minutes, or until the top of the cake is golden and a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack.
To serve, run a thin-bladed knife around the outside edge of the cake. Remove the springform sides, and serve the pudding/cake off the base. Serve at room temperature or slightly chilled. Store in the refrigerator.
Over the three-day President’s day weekend I tried to deflate my body somewhat. I am not yet at my highest weight ever, but getting dangerously close. I thought it was time to make my clothes fit a little looser – at least. Three days at my Connecticut place, away from restaurants, and even the temptations of the big, food-filled city (I mean, we don’t even have a grocery store in my town) seemed, as it has before, a good opportunity to diet. My friend Bob Harned was feeling the same and so, instead of doing something sensible, I did what he likes to do when he feels bloated: Eat only protein.
Like any red-blooded American male, I saw this as an opportunity to eat mainly red-blooded food. We pigged-out on meat, with bacon and eggs for breakfast and Swiss cheese as a snack. On the way up, I stopped at the Grand Union on Route 22 in Pawling, where they sell prime meat, and bought two thick rib steaks, two well-marbled sirloin strip steaks, some hamburger meat, and rib-end slabs of pork, which are often called “country-style” spare ribs, though they are so meaty you would hardly consider them “spare.”
I got through the weekend fine enough. According to my unreliable bathroom scale, it seems I even lost three pounds. Once again, however, I decided I cannot tolerate this diet. Besides that it shall I say disrupts my regularity in a most uncomfortable way, it is a very unhealthy way to eat, it makes me feel like a caveman, and it leaves a terrible taste in my mouth. I know, I know, I could do a drastic diet like this eating fish, which would be far healthier, but 1) I have to go way out of my way to buy fresh fish where I live in Connecticut, and 2) I love steak. After three days of this, I crave beyond reason some salad and fruit and vegetables.
All this confession stuff is to lead up to some instruction on how to broil a steak at home. It is really easy if you have a decent broiler. Even with an indecent broiler — the old, cheapo stove I had in my Brooklyn apartment, where I had to practically get on the floor to use the broiler — I was able to produce a well-browned, medium-rare-on-the-rare-side steak. If you like your steak medium, the same instructions apply. (I won’t address those of you who eat steak well done because your steaks are always well-browned).
How To Broil A Steak
Make sure your steak is at between 1 1/4 and 1 1/2 inches thick. For my timing to work, the steak should be cold, right out of the refrigerator. I actually find that a cold steak helps insure a rare center, while giving the exterior enough time to develop a crust.
Sprinkle the steak well with salt. I use sea salt with about the same granulation as kosher salt. Kosher salt is perfect. Fine table salt (sea salt or commercially processed salt) doesn’t help a crust form as well as coarser salt. I put freshly ground pepper on at the table. As my Neapolitan friends always say, one of the beauties of black pepper is its fragrance and you can only get the full impact of that if you grind the pepper under your nose.
Adjust the rack under your broiler so it is as close as possible, but of course leaving enough room for the broiler pan and the steak. Put the broiler pan on the rack under the broiler and preheat the broiler pan for a few minutes. It should be very hot so the underside of the steak starts cooking immediately.
When the broiler pan is very hot, pull out the rack holding it and put the steaks on the pan. Broil for 5 minutes. Open the oven, being aware that the oven is now full of smoke. Avert your eyes. Turn the steak and broil for 4 minutes longer.
If you find this timing has produced a steak that is too rare, you can put it back under the broiler for another 30 seconds to a minute, but remember to increase the time on the second side next time you broil a steak. You may need a small adjustment on this timing (I’m talking seconds), depending on your broiler and your steak, but this has worked for me consistently for a long time, through several different broilers.
I use the same technique for thick hamburgers – a double-fisted amount of meat (about a third of a pound, up to a half pound of meat), just pushed into a three to four-inch diameter patty, seasoned only on the outside with salt — except that the first side needs only 4 minutes.
As for the “country-style” pork ribs, I cooked them Neapolitan style, more or less as I describe in my recipe for lamb arriganata, or baked lamb, in Naples At Table, where I mention in the head note that it is a good method for cooking meats other than lamb and goat.
I arranged the ribs in a 13 by 9-inch baking dish. I had just enough to fill the pan rather snugly. I seasoned them with salt and freshly ground black pepper, about a teaspoon of dried oregano, which I crushed with my fingertips as I sprinkled it on, 4 large cloves of garlic that I was too lazy to do anything but slice thickly (in the Naples At Table recipe I use onion), and a 14-ounce can of San Marzano cherry tomatoes in tomato juice, a product that is imported by and sold at D. Coluccio on 12th Ave. in Brooklyn. I understand that it is most unlikely you would have such a can of tomatoes in your pantry. Let me assure you that a similarly sized can of regular plum tomatoes would do the job very well, too.
I truly did nothing but dump all this on the pork ribs in the pan, except that I did squish up the tomatoes somewhat.
I put this in a preheated 350-degree oven for an hour, but when I went to turn the ribs after an hour, I realized the oven wasn’t hot enough. After turning the ribs and spooning the tomato stuff back on top of the ribs, I turned the oven up to 375 degrees. This made the juice in the pan simmer more briskly and begin reduce – my goal. After another 45 minutes, I turned the ribs one more time, checked my seasoning and added some more salt and pepper, and kept them in the oven until they were very, very tender – about 2 hours and 15 minutes all told.
Yes, there was a tremendous amount of fat in the pan. Don’t serve it. Remove the chops to a platter and spoon up the tomato sauce – now very thick – allowing the fat from each spoonful to drain back into the pan. Or, tip the pan and spoon off as much fat as you can before serving the sauce.
Now, if only I had been eating pasta or bread or potatoes, had a pile of vegetables on the side, and drinking wine, I would have been in heaven.
I often refer to this recipe as Neapolitan noodle kugel, so I wasn’t surprised when some of my friends called it just that when I served it at a party last week.
It is the perfect buffet dish: It can be prepped and assembled ahead of time. It is easy to eat with only a fork. It is delicious hot from the oven, but also as it cools, and even at room temperature. Besides, it is always a huge hit. I was really happy I had prepared two of them, because everyone wanted seconds, if not thirds. And it is very rich, too.
It is ideal for an Easter brunch even if you are not having a buffet and even if you are having a small number of people. Although the recipe serves at least eight, it is excellent reheated. I bake mine in a large, round Spanish clay dish I bought years ago from Williams Sonoma, but a conventional rectangular lasagne pan is perfect, or any shape, shallow casserole.
The word “pastiera” usually refers to the Neapolitan ricotta pie made for Easter, the one that contains whole grains of wheat, which symbolize re-birth, the theme of the holy day. The pie is also called pizza piena, meaning stuffed pie, or pizza “gain” in Italian-American dialect, the word “gain” coming from “piena.” Rustica means savory, as in the opposite of sweet, but further usually refers to a food containing a mixture of chopped or diced preserved pork products and cheese. Obviously, it also refers to the rusticity of these dishes. No one I know in the city of Naples proper knows of a baked pasta liked this called “pastiera,” but I do know people from surrounding areas, even from what we would these days consider Naples suburbs, who do. It shows how regional food still is in Italy.
For more on this recipe, and several other baked pasta recipes and egg recipes appropriate for Easter buffets and brunches, check out Naples At Table.
Pastiera Rustica di Tagliolini
Serves 8 to 10
1 pound (or 1/2 kilo: 2 8.8-ounce packages) dried narrow egg pasta (the narrower the better): tagliolini, tagliarini, tagliatelle or, only if those are not available, fettuccine
4 tablespoons butter (1/2 stick), cut into 6 to 8 pieces
2 cups cold milk
4 large eggs, beaten to mix well
2/3 cup loosely packed, freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (about 2 ounces)
2/3 cup loosely packed, freshly grated pecorino (about 2 ounces)
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or slightly more to taste
2 tablespoons butter or lard (for greasing pan)
4 ounces sharp provolone, cut in 1/4-inch dice (about 3/4 cup)
4 ounces pancetta, cut in 1/8-inch dice (about 3/4 cup)
4 ounces soppressata or dried sausage, cut in 1/4-inch dice (about 3/4 cup)
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. Cook the pasta in boiling, salted water, until slightly underdone, usually about 3 minutes.
3. Drain the pasta well and place it in a large bowl. Toss with the butter. Pour in the milk. Toss and stir well; let stand, tossing every 5 to 10 minutes, until the pasta absorbs all except perhaps a tablespoon or so of the milk. This can happen almost immediately or take as long as 30 minutes.
4. While the pasta is standing, in another bowl, beat the eggs with the grated cheeses and pepper. With 2 tablespoons of butter or lard, grease a baking pan or a shallow casserole of at least 4-quart capacity.
5. When the pasta has absorbed the milk, add the egg mixture, then the provolone, pancetta, and soppressata. Mix well. Pour into the greased baking pan. (May be made ahead to this point. If refrigerating, bring back to near room temperature before baking.)
6. Bake for about 50 minutes, or until the top and edges have browned lightly.
7. Let rest 10 to 20 minutes before serving, or serve warm instead of hot, or at room temperature.
Note: Cut into individual portions, the pastiera reheats very well, uncovered, in a microwave. Or, don’t cut into portions, cover with foil, and reheat at 300 degrees, in a conventional oven.
I suppose the word “semifreddo,” which means “half cold” in Italian, and refers to a category of frozen desserts that aren’t truly gelato or sorbetto — ice cream or sorbet — comes from the fact that semifreddi (the plural) are usually eaten softer than true ice cream.
My HarperCollins Italian-English dictionary defines the word as “Chilled dessert made with ice cream,” which is not entirely accurate. Semifreddi are a type of ice cream you might say, but not dessert made with ice cream, although one might refer to a Neapolitan spumone, a molded frozen dessert composed of layers of several types of frozen dessert — what we and the French would call a “bomb” – a semifreddo.
John Mariani’s definition in The Dictionary of Italian Food and Drink is more like it but not the entire story: “a custard or a mousse with a slightly softened texture that is eaten with a spoon.” He doesn’t mention that semifreddi are always frozen, and I disagree that crema caramela, tiramisu, and “desserts containing ricotta” are considered semifreddi. At least I have never seen the word applied to them, unless, of course, they were frozen.
There are several ways to make semifreddi. The dessert can be based on a classic custard, which is to say milk or cream and eggs cooked together until the eggs thicken the liquid, then lightened with beaten egg whites and/or whipped cream and frozen. Or it can be based on a cooked zabaione (also spelled zabaglione), which is technically a type of custard, except that the liquid is wine or a liqueur instead of milk or cream. A zabaione can be made with either whole eggs or egg yolks alone. In either case, it needs to be lightened with beaten egg whites and/or whipped cream. Or semifreddo can be based on a raw egg yolk and sugar base, as in the following recipe. There are also semifreddi based on what is called Italian meringue, which is egg whites beaten with hot sugar syrup. That, too, would be enriched with whipped cream or a cooked custard and whipped cream. The one thing that is not done in any semifreddo recipe I have ever read or made is churning the custard base and cream together as in true gelato or American ice cream.
I got the following recipe from Stefano Baldantoni, the chef at Acquario, a small, stylishly scruffy (and on the weekends regrettably noisy) restaurant at 5 Bleecker St., between Bowery & Elizabeth Sts. ( 212-260-4666). The Sicilian owners of Acquario are importers of fish and other ingredients from the Mediterranean and the menu is not entirely Italian because they like to feature their full line of products, which includes Spanish, Portuguese and North African goods. Stefano handles them all as if he was a native of all those places, but he is Italian, from Le Marche. If you go, order mainly fish dishes, including his spaghetti with tuna bottarga, which is salted and pressed roe. All he does is whip the bottarga in the blender with some great olive oil, parsley and hot pasta cooking water, then toss it with the spaghetti. Simple and fabulous! So is this semifreddo flavored with Amaretti di Saronno cookies, which he molds in a loaf, then serves in slices drizzled with both chocolate sauce and caramel sauce, garnished with an amaretto. When I made it I just scooped it into goblets and garnished it with a few of the miniature Amaretti di Saronno I happened to have on hand. You might also freeze it in individual ramekins or directly in stemmed glasses.
PS: There are several semifreddo recipes in my book, Naples At Table, including one flavored with Strega, and one made with coffee that, because it is served in small cups, is called a coviglia, which means “cup” in local dialect.
Semifreddo di Amaretti
Makes about 3 quarts
12 large eggs
1 3/4 cups superfine sugar (or process granulated sugar in the food processor until fine)
3 1/2 ounces Amaretti di Saronno (20 full-sized Amaretti cookies, which are packaged 2 to a twisted, colored paper)
1 quart heavy cream
Separate the eggs. Put all the yolks into a large bowl. Reserve 7 of the whites in another bowl, making sure the bowl is spotless and dry. Use the remaining 5 whites for something else, or discard.
Using the metal blade of a food processor (or a blender), grind the amaretti to a fine powder. If there are coarser bits among the fine, leave them. They add a little crunchy texture to the finished frozen dessert.
Add the sugar to the yolks and, with a wire whisk or hand-held electric mixer, beat until thick and light. Add the ground Amaretti and beat until well blended.
In a clean bowl, beat the cream into soft peaks and fold into the egg yolk mixture.
Beat the egg whites until stiff, then fold them into the mixture.
Pour into a large plastic container or bowl and freeze, covered, until well set, at least several hours.
Serve scooped into individual dishes.
This is a delicious and easy recipe that’s
very hard to find because people look in Italian cookbooks for it.
It isn’t entirely Italian, so they search in vain. Indeed, it is
hardly even known outside the New York metro area, which leads me
to believe that it is a strictly local dish. In fact, the only English
language cookbook in which I have EVER seen the recipe is in one
of my own, Cooking In A Small
Kitchen, published by Little Brown in 1978 and now out of
print, and The
Brooklyn Cookbook by Lyn Stallworth and Rod Kennedy, Jr.,
published by Knopf in 1991 and still widely available.
The recipe does, however, have antecedents
in recipes that I have found in Italian language Neapolitan cookbooks,
but its final refinement must have been in New York. When I was
growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950s, it was just beginning to gain
in popularity over veal and chicken parmigiana. You can also have
veal francese, shrimp francese, and fish (usually sole or flounder
Francese of course means “in the
French manner,” but it refers to a food that is dipped in flour
and egg, then fried, then dressed with lemon juice or lemon sauce.
In Neapolitan cookbooks, there’s mozzarella or provola (aged mozzarella)
treated this way, and chicken thighs on the bone treated this way.
But a thin slice of veal or chicken? No. And these days, such a
dish would not be called francese in Naples anyway. It would most
likely be called indorati e fritti — gilded and fried. Entirely
an Italian dish.
Because this is a restaurant dish and usually
made in single portions, the following recipe is a slight compromise
— in order to prepare enough for four, you have to keep half the
recipe warm while cooking the rest. It can be done without drying
out the chicken, but make sure to ever-so-slightly undercook the
first batch, as it will stand in a warming oven for a few minutes.
Use the same ingredients and method for preparing veal or shrimp
or a fish fillet, keeping in mind that the cooking times will vary
Note well: Make sure to have all
ingredients measured and lined up before starting to cook. You will
have to make the chicken in 2 batches of 2 cutlets each, so the
frying fats and the sauce ingredients will be used half at a time.
Before beginning, put the oven on 200 degrees so you will have a
warm oven to keep the first batch of two cutlets warm while cooking
the second two.
Between 2 sheets of waxed paper, using
the side of a can, a heavy jar, or a meat pounder, pound the breasts
until about 1/3 of an inch thick (or have the butcher do this for
you). Season well with salt and pepper.
Place some flour on a dinner plate or a
piece of waxed paper.
Beat the eggs with a fork in a wide, shallow
bowl or a deep plate with a rim.
Dredge 2 chicken breasts on both sides
in the flour, coating heavily by pressing it on. Then pass the breasts
through the egg, making sure they are thoroughly coated.
Just before placing the breasts in the
hot oil, dredge them in the flour again, again coating heavily.
In a 10-inch skillet, over medium-high
to high heat, heat the oil and butter together until sizzling. Place
the coated breasts in the pan and fry for about 2 minutes or slightly
longer per side, until the batter is browned and the cutlets are
just done through. If the fat in the pan starts smoking before the
cutlets are done, turn down the heat slightly or add just a touch
(a teaspoon or so) more oil. Do not let the fat burn or, for that
matter, the flour that has migrated into it.
As the cutlets are done (2 fit easily in
a 10-inch skillet), remove to a serving platter and keep warm while
making the sauce.
Immediately add the vermouth, chicken broth
and lemon juice to the pan. Let boil over high heat for about a
minute, until reduced by about half and slightly thickened. It will
Pour the sauce into a cup and set aside
while repeating the whole procedure with the remaining cutlets and
When you have made the second sauce, add
the first to it, in the skillet, to reheat it. Pour the sauce over
the cutlets, garnish with lemon wedges and serve immediately.
I first learned about Zaletti from Thomas Halik, the proprietor of Not Just Rugalach, which has stands at various Greenmarkets around the city. (See my Maven’s Diary entry called Jury Duty Eats.) Zaletti are cornmeal biscotti with raisins from Venice.
Thomas actually thought they were from Tuscany. “You know how those Tuscans love cornmeal,” he said. Actually, I told Thomas, Tuscans don’t love cornmeal. But Americans nowadays think that anything good from Italy must be Tuscan, which is far, far, far from the truth.
Cornmeal is a popular food of the Veneto, I continued to lecture, the northeastern Italian region of which Venice is the main city. Think polenta, which is the cornmeal mush much beloved of the Venetians.
“I’ll bet any amount of money that Zaletti are from the Veneto,” I told Thomas. Sure enough, they are. I found recipes in several Italian cookbooks, English language and Italian language, and, along with the recipe that Thomas uses and sent me, which he got from the Newark Star Ledger, I tried them all. Following is the best of the lot, which I got from one of my most reliable sources, Michele Scicolone, who has written many books on Italian cooking.
I mentioned Zaletti to Gianni Scappin, a chef and Culinary Institute of America consultant whose restaurant, GiGi Trattoria, will be opening on Montgomery St. in Rhinebeck, N.Y., this summer. He is from the Bassano del Grappa, in the Veneto, and he told me, confirming Michele’s information, that the word Zaletti, which is also spelled Zaleti, comes from the word giallo, obviously because cornmeal is yellow.
“The real word should be Gialletti,” says Gianni, “meaning ‘little yellow things,’ but Venetians are very lazy speakers and they avoid double consonants and extra vowels, so it became Zaleti in dialect.”
The dough is essentially what Italians would call pasta frolla and we would call short pastry. In Anglo terms, Zaleti are very much like shortbread made with a portion of cornmeal. Some recipes do not include raisins, but Gianni says that raisins are a must and that they should be soaked in grappa. “And why not put the extra grappa in the cookies. Or drink it!”
With a few inconsequential changes in the directions (you know I can’t help put my two cents into everything), this is the formula for Zaletti from my friend Michele Scicolone’s book, La Dolce Vita, which was recently re-issued in paperback I find the book invaluable for Italian dessert recipes, and now at only $13.60 through Amazon (just click on the underlined title, just mentioned) you will find it well-worth the investment.
3/4 cup golden raisins
1/4 cup grappa or brandy
1 1/2 cups al-purpose flour
1 cup fine yellow cornmeal
1/2 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup sugar
1 large egg
1 1/2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
In a small bowl, soak the raisins in the grappa until plump, at least 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Combine the flour, cornmeal and salt.
In a large bowl, beat together the butter and sugar. Beat in the egg, lemon zest, and vanilla until well blended. Stir in the dry ingredients. Add the raisins and grappa (or brandy) and still until combined. Cover and chill for at least 1 hour, or until firm enough to handle. (The dough may be made and refrigerated for several days. Return to a workable, but cold temperature before proceeding.)
On a lightly floured surface, roll out the dough to a 1/4-inch thickness. Cut the dough into diamond shapes, about 1 1/2 to 2 inches long and about 3/4-inch wide. Place the cookies on two baking sheets. There is no need to butter, flour or prepare the pans in any way, although, if you want, you can use baking parchment to cover the pans.
Bake on the middle shelf of the preheated oven for 12 to 15 minutes, perhaps up to a minute longer, or until the zaletti are lightly browned around the edges. They will also be lightly browned on the bottoms. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.
When completely cool, store in a tin. If the cookies get a little soft in storage, arrange them on a plate a few hours before serving and they will crisp up. These are not soft cookies.
Although Michele’s recipe does not specify this, in Italy, these are always sprinkled with confectioners’ sugar. Do it just before serving.
Arthur’s ingredient note: I used Goya’s fine cornmeal, which is widely sold in the metro New York area. It comes in plastic bags. You can use a coarser cornmeal, but be aware that the texture of the cookies will then by much grainier.