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How to Make Panigacci and Focaccette

Focaccette: Enjoy!

Focaccette: Enjoy!

The Lunigiana, the area including the Val di Luni, which extends inland along the border between Tuscany and Liguria, and the mountains inland of Massa and Carrara, is known for hearth cooking: People cook testaroli, a local equivalent of (some say progenitor to) pasta in testi, which are large deep cast iron skillets set over the coals. They also cook their bread over the coals, though they don’t use testi, but rather testine, which are flat, unglazed terracotta saucers about 7 inches (18 cm) across; they heat them in the coals and stack them, with a disk of dough between each pair of testine. The bread that  emerges is flat and firm, and is called a panigaccio.

Good, but if you return a freshly cooked panigaccio to the coals it will puff up beautifully, becoming a focaccetta. The perfect bread for a cookout!

And what are the origins of panigacci and focaccette? Archaic, I expect; they are breads that either predate the development of ovens in the area or were developed by people who couldn’t stay in a given place long enough to make building an oven practical. And because they are good, they have survived to the present in the isolated wilds of the Lunigiana. Locals simply say they have always been.

I took these at Pierpaolo Lorieri’s Azienda Scurtarola, in the course of a lunch following a tasting of his wines.

Making Focaccette: Mix the Flours

Making Focaccette: Mix the Flours

Focaccetta dough is quite simple, and very quick to make. If you want to make, say, about 20 focaccette, begin with about 4 pounds (2 k) unbleached all purpose flour and mix into it 20% by weight finely ground cornmeal — 0.8 pounds, or 400 g. Also add a pinch of salt.

Making Focaccette: Knead the Dough

Making Focaccette: Knead the Dough

Add sufficient water to make a fairly soft dough, the consistency of soft pizza dough. Divide the dough into pieces about the size of a small apple — 2/3 cup — and put them on a well-floured cloth.

Making Focaccette: Heat the Testine

Making Focaccette: Heat the Testine

In the meantime, heat the testine. In Lunigiana one can buy testine in places that sell cooking supplies. Elsewhere, I would visit a garden supply shop and purchase 20-25 of the round terracotta saucers — what are called sottovasi in Italian — that one puts under flowerpots to catch drips. They should be 6-8 inches (15-20 cm) in diameter.

Set a bale of kindling over your barbecue fire, and lay the testine on the kindling; as the kindling burns they will heat right up. The kindling here is a bale of vineyard prunings, but any kindling will work.

Making Focaccette: The Testine are Hot

Making Focaccette: The Testine are Hot

It will take the kindling about 10 minutes to burn down, and at this point the testine will be hot.

The large skillets with lids in the foreground are testi, used in this case to keep a roast warm, rather than cook testaroli.

Making Focaccette: Lay Out the Testine

Making Focaccette: Lay Out the Testine

Remove the testine from the coals to a rack — since both their tops and their bottoms will come in contact with the food, you don’t want to put them in the dirt, and because of their heat you will want long tongs, and heat-resistant gloves.

Fresh from the fire the testine will be quite hot, likely too hot. To test for temperature, sprinkle a little flour over them. When the flour browns, but doesn’t blacken, they are at the right temperature.

Making Focaccette: Stack the Testine, with Dough Between Each Pair

Making Focaccette: Stack the Testine, with Dough Between Each Pair

Flatten out the first ball of dough and lay it on a Testina, covering it immediately with another testina, whose heat will help cook the top of the focaccetta below, while cooking the bottom of the next disk of dough. Continue alternating disks of dough and testine until you have used all of both.

One thing: A stack of testine is both hot and unstable. If you’re making focaccette once you may be able to jury rig a support by driving a couple of rods into the ground, but if you find yourself making focaccette often (and you well may) you may want to make a stand of the sort Pierpaolo has here.

Making Focaccette: A Stack, with a Cooked Panigaccio

Making Focaccette: A Stack, with a Cooked Panigaccio

It will take the focaccette about 5 minutes to cook. To test for doneness, simply remove the top testina and look at the — well, at this point it’s flat, and is what is called a panigaccio. A tasty archaic bread, but they’re much better when they’re puffed up.

Making Focaccette: Put the Panigacci to Puff in the Coals

Making Focaccette: Put the Panigacci to Puff in the Coals

Panigacci are made without yeast, so whatever rising there is comes from steam, and to obtain it you return your freshly cooked panigaccio to the coals. Simply lay it flat in the embers, and in a minute or so the moisture still in the dough will vaporize, puffing the panigaccio up and transforming it into a focaccetta. Depending upon how fast it puffs, you may or may not want to flip it.

When it has puffed up, put it in the basket; unless there are several of you working with tongs, you will likely want to puff three or four focaccette at a time.

Making Focaccette: A Puffed Up Focaccetta!

Making Focaccette: A Puffed Up Focaccetta!

Done! And ready for the basket. What to do with them? They split easily, and in this respect resemble pita bread. If you’re serving something that can be slipped or spooned into a bread pocket, for example cold cuts, cheese, grilled vegetables, pulled pork, roasted lamb, or even Greek Gyro, by all means do so. If not, enjoy your focaccette as you would any other bread.

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The Origins of Tiramisu: Courtesans? Perhaps, But When? And What Of Zuppa Del Duce?

Making Tiramisu: Finish with a Sprinkling of Cocoa

Making Tiramisu: Finish with a Sprinkling of Cocoa

Someone on an American food-related listserve I subscribe to asked if anyone knew the origins of Tiramisu, a seriously decadent creamy dessert that combines chocolate, coffee, savoiardi cookies, and mascarpone cheese.

I said I had heard it was from Treviso (in the Veneto), and relatively recent, and a couple others said the same, adding that the recipe was developed in the 60s by Treviso’s Ristorante El Toulà.

Someone else instead said she had found a story about how Tiramisu was invented by Sienese pastry chefs in the late 1600s to honor Grand Duke Cosimo III De’Medici, who was known for his sweet tooth.

I looked around a bit, and found a number of web pages with the Sienese origin; the texts are pretty much identical (said text also appears in Volume 12 of La Repubblica’s Enciclopedia della Cucina Italiana, on page 285). Briefly, they say the Sienese developed the dessert for the Duke on the occasion of a State visit, and initially called it Zuppa del Duca, or Duke’s Pudding. The zuppa was a terrific success, especially among courtesans, who found it both stimulating and aphrodisiac, and thus enjoyed it before trysts; with time they took to calling it tiramisu, or pick me up. Subsequently, the story goes, tiramisu spread to Venice and the Veneto, where it remained a local treat until it suddenly gained national popularity in the late 70s.

It’s a nice story, but I have my doubts, for a number of reasons.

First, historical:

  • Artusi, who gives a number of Tuscan and Venetian dessert recipes in La Scienza in Cucina (which he published in 1891 and updated repeatedly until shortly before his death in 1911), doesn’t mention it; given his penchant for going off on tangents and telling stories, it would have been a perfect recipe for him to include, had he known about it.
  • Nor does tiramisu appear in Il Talisamno della Felicità (published in 1929), and while it is true that Ada Boni was less given to tangents than Artusi, it’s also true that she was aiming Il Talismano squarely at the emerging middle class, and would certainly have included a dessert this rich, tasty, and easy to make had she been aware of it.
  • Nor does it appear in La Mia Cucina, a comprehensive 10-volume set De Agostini published in 1978. Again, had they been aware of it, they would certainly have included it.
  • The final bit of historic evidence comes from American food writer Nancy Jenkins, who, despite having lived in Italy from 1975 to 1980, first encountered tiramisu in 1983, on the island of Torcello in the Laguna Veneta.

Cookbooks don’t bear out the legend, but there is also the cheese:

Though Mascarpone, one of the major ingredients in tiramisu, is now readily available throughout Italy, it was once a specialty of Lombardia, and more specifically Lodi and Abbiategrasso, towns not far from Milano. It’s difficult to see how a cheese as delicate as Mascarpone could have made it from Lombardia to Siena in the days before refrigeration or rapid transportation without spoiling.

And finally, there is the safety factor:

Tiramisu made following the classic recipe contains both raw eggs and mascarpone. While raw eggs in their shells keep quite well, raw egg in an uncooked cream becomes dangerous if it is not kept cold. So does Mascarpone: a number of cases of botulism have been traced to mascarpone that was allowed to warm up at some point between leaving the dairy and reaching the table. Given the state of refrigeration in the late 1600s, enjoying a bowl of tiramisu then would have been a risky proposition indeed.

So I think the recipe is recent, and am inclined to believe the folks at El Toulà; when I called they told me they don’t remember the name of the chef who first made it, sometime in the 30s, but that the clients of a nearby House of Ill Repute used to enjoy it as a ricostituente, or pick-me-up after their labors. Hence the name.

Having Said All This, Some Tiramisu Recipes:

And what about Zuppa Del Duce?

According to Giovanni Righi Parente, author of La Cucina Toscana, it’s essentially zuppa inglese, or English trifle:

Line the bottom of a tureen with thin slices of pan di Spagna (genoise, or pound cake will work as substitutes) and sprinkle them with alkermes (a spicy deep red liqueur), crème de cacao, white rum, or any other liqueur you like, so long as it’s sweet.

Pour over it a pastry cream made with 1 pint (500 ml) whole milk, 200 g (1 cup) granulated sugar, 2 tablespoons flour and 2 whole eggs, separated; beat the yolks and whip the whites, and combine both with the cold milk before setting it on the stove. Cook, stirring gently over a low flame until the mixture thickens, without letting it boil, lest it curdle.

If you instead want to make a quick cream, heat the milk, sugar and flour until the mixture thickens, remove it from the burner, and when it has cooled beat the yolks and add them to the mixture (no whites here). In terms of flavoring, a vanilla bean heated with the milk (a teaspoon of vanilla extract will also work).

Chill the tureen with the pan di Spagna and the cream in the refrigerator, and after about an hour cover it with a layer of whipped cream, sprinkling all with grated chocolate and finely chopped canditi (candied fruit peels).

No Mascarpone, but it will be good.

Making Zuppa Inglese, Italian English Trifle, Illustrated

Making Zuppa Inglese: Enjoy!

Making Zuppa Inglese: Enjoy!

Though Italian cookbooks wonder at the origins of this pudding’s name, Zuppa Inglese really is an English trifle, in other words a pudding made by interlayering cake with cream and other ingredients. It’s especially common in Tuscany, because the English who lived in the region a century ago often asked for it, but you will find it throughout the Peninsula. It can be served either chilled (which is more common), or partially frozen, though if you take that route be careful lest it freeze solid.

Zuppa Inglese is one of my Father-in-Law’s favorite desserts, and wife Elisabetta grew up watching her mother make it. Now, Daughter C watches her make it.

Making Zuppa Inglese: The Ingredients

Making Zuppa Inglese: The Ingredients

To serve 4-6 you’ll need:

  •     8 ounces (200 g) Savoiardi (see link below) or ladyfingers
  •     3 cups (750 ml) milk
  •     1/2 cup (50 g) flour
  •     1/2 cup (100 g) sugar
  •     An ounce (30 g) bitter cocoa powder
  •     4 yolks
  •     1/2 cup of rum
  •     1/2 cup Alkermes or other aromatic liqueur, for example Strega or Amaretto –   Note: you can just use Alkermes
  •     Whipped cream and maraschino cherries for decoration
  •     A pretty mold (or a bowl, even) large enough to contain the ingredients
Making Zuppa Inglese: Spread Crema Over the Savoiardi

Making Zuppa Inglese: Spread Crema Over the Savoiardi

Zuppa Ingelse is a mixture of Crema Pasticcera and chocolate pudding, so begin by preparing them:

Put all but a half cup of the milk in a pot and set the pot over a very gentle flame. Beat the yolks in a deep bowl with 3/8 cup (75 g) of the sugar, and then sift in the flour, beating steadily so as to obtain a smooth, lump-free cream.

Put the remaining sugar in another pot and mix the cocoa into it, then stir a tablespoon or two of cold milk into the mixture and heat it over a low flame, being careful to avoid the formation of lumps.

Gently stir the remaining cold milk into the egg mixture, and then, stirring constantly and gently, add the hot milk to the cream. When the cream is well mixed, gently pour it back into the pot you used to heat the milk and return it to the slow burner. Heat, stirring, until it barely reaches a boil, and cook for two minutes, stirring gently. Remove the pot from the fire, pour half the cream into a bowl, and gently stir the chocolate into the remaining half so as to obtain both pastry cream and chocolate cream.

Making Zuppa Inglese: And then Chocolate...

Making Zuppa Inglese: And then Chocolate…

You can either mix the rum and Alkermes with a quarter cup of water in a bowl, brush the Savoiardi with the mixture (don’t soak them, or they will sweat out the excess later), or you can set the savoiardi in a bowl and dribble some, but not too much alkermes over them, as we did here. In either case, put a layer of savoiardi in the bottom of the mold or bowl, and cover it with a layer of crema pasticcera.

Making Zuppa Inglese: Preparing Savoiardi

Making Zuppa Inglese: Preparing Savoiardi

Another layer of Savoiardi, and then the chocolate cream, and here Elisabetta is dribbling Alkermes (a sweet, spicy liqueur said to have been developed in the kitchens of the Medici Dukes) over what will be the final layer of Savoiardi.

Making Zuppa Inglese: Crema On Top

Making Zuppa Inglese: Crema On Top

The finished Zuppa Inglese

Making Zuppa Inglese: And then Decoration!

Making Zuppa Inglese: And then Decoration!

Decorate the surface of the zuppa with some of the remaining chocolate pudding. Here Elisabetta chose a freestyle design. Cover the zuppa with aluminum foil (make sure it doesn’t touch its surface) and chill it in the refrigerator for at least 12 hours.

Come time to serve it, there are two options.

  • First, remove the foil, cover the mold with a serving dish and quickly flip it, so the zuppa inglese comes to rest upon the serving dish. Remove the aluminum or oiled paper you used to line the mold, and decorate the zuppa inglese with dollops of whipped cream from a pastry sack, and maraschino cherries cut in half.
  •     Second, serve the zuppa inglese directly from the mold or bowl. Less elegant, but I confess it is how we serve it.

Any Cream Left Over? Put it to Good Use!

A Mini-Zuppa

A Mini-Zuppa

If you have leftover crema pasticcera and chocolate, make mini-zuppa inglesi in pretty glasses, for example this demitasse-sized glass for those who prefer their espresso in glass as opposed to porcelain.

This recipe on a shorter page
A Neapolitan Zuppa Inglese

Zuppa Ingelse, English Trifle

Making Zuppa Inglese: Enjoy!

Making Zuppa Inglese: Enjoy!

Though Italian cookbooks wonder at the origins of this pudding’s name, it really is an English trifle, in other words a pudding made by interlayering cake with cream and other ingredients. It’s especially common in Tuscany, in part because the English who lived in the region a century ago often asked for it, but you will find it throughout the Peninsula. It can be served either chilled, or, if you prefer, partially frozen, though if you take that route be careful lest it freeze solid.

To serve 4-6 you’ll need:

  • 8 ounces (200 g) Savoiardi or ladyfingers
  • 3 cups (750 ml) milk
  • 1/2 cup (50 g) flour
  • 1/2 cup (100 g) sugar
  • An ounce (30 g) bitter cocoa powder
  • 4 yolks
  • 1/2 cup of rum
  • 1/2 cup Alkermes or other aromatic liqueur, for example Strega or Amaretto
  • Whipped cream and maraschino cherries for decoration
  • A deep, smooth-sided mold, lined with aluminum foil or oiled paper
Making Zuppa Inglese: Spread Crema Over the Savoiardi

Making Zuppa Inglese: Spread Crema Over the Savoiardi

Put all but a half cup of the milk in a pot and set the pot over a very gentle flame. Beat the yolks in a deep bowl with 3/8 cup (75 g) of the sugar, and then sift in the flour, beating steadily so as to obtain a smooth, lump-free pastry cream.

Put the remaining sugar in another pot and mix the cocoa into it, then stir a tablespoon or two of cold milk into the mixture and heat it over a low flame, being careful to avoid the formation of lumps.

Gently stir the remaining cold milk into the egg mixture, and then, stirring constantly and gently, add the hot milk to the cream. When the cream is well mixed, gently pour it back into the pot you used to heat the milk and return it to the slow burner. Heat, stirring, until it barely reaches a boil, and cook for two minutes, stirring gently. Remove the pot from the fire, pour half the cream into a bowl, and gently stir the chocolate into the remaining half so as to obtain both pastry cream and chocolate cream.

Mix the rum and Alkermes with a quarter cup of water in a bowl, brush the Savoiardi with the mixture (don’t soak them, or they will sweat out the excess later), and use them to line the pudding mold. Next, pour the pastry cream over the Savoiardi, cover it with a layer of brushed Savoiardi, and finish with the chocolate cream, followed by a final layer of brushed Savoiardi. Cover the pudding with aluminum foil and chill it in the refrigerator for at least 12 hours.

This is one way to prepare it, and come time to serve it, you will want to remove the foil, cover the mold with a serving dish and upend it, so the pudding comes to rest upon the serving dish. Remove the aluminum or oiled paper you used to line the mold, and decorate the zuppa inglese with dollops of whipped cream from a pastry sack, and maraschino cherries cut in half.

My wife instead covers the final layer of savoiardi with a little more cream, and decorates the cream with swirls of chocolate before refrigerating the zuppa inglese. She then serves it direct from the bowl.

This recipe, illustrated
A Neapolitan Zuppa Inglese

Siena’s Panforte, A Christmas Delight

Siena's Panforte Margherita

Siena’s Panforte Margherita

CHRISTMAS MEANS MANY THINGS:  it’s a religious holiday, but also an opportunity for families to gather, strengthening the ties between the generations. This aspect of the holiday is especially important in parts of Italy that were abandoned by the younger generation during the economic boom of the 1960s, when the unemployed in the provinces moved to the northern cities to take factory jobs. One of the highlights of the reunion is of course the Christmas dinner, which varies tremendously from place to place; in Tuscany it’s on Christmas Day and meat based, traditionally featuring, among other things, cappelletti (the Modenese variation on tortellini) in capon broth, followed by, among other things, boiled capon. Desserts tend to be sumptuous, and perhaps Siena’s most of all: Panforte, a heavenly mixture of honey, spices, candied fruit, and almonds whose origin stretches back into the mists of time:

Some say it was invented in the 1200s by a novitiate nun, Suor Leta, who discovered a mound of sugar, spices and almonds in the bottom of the spice cabinet — mice had chewed holes in the bags, and the precious offerings made by pilgrims returning from the Holy Land were hopelessly mixed. Her first thought was to gather the mess in a bag and bury it, but that sort of waste was a sin. So she stood there, stroking her chin and wondering what to do, when a black cat came into the kitchen and the thought came to her: Put it all on the fire and make yourself something tasty. So she did; the sugar caramelized, the spices amalgamated, and to keep it all from sticking to the pan she stirred in some honey, then the remaining almonds and put the mixture into the oven to let it set.

It smelled delicious and she was feeling very pleased with herself, when the cat, who had been rubbing up against her and purring, said, “Aren’t you going to taste it?” Cats don’t talk but the Devil does; she dumped the contents of the pan over him and he changed to his true form, vanishing in a foul-smelling puff of smoke. By the time Suor Berta, the mother Superior, got to the kitchen the dessert’s heavenly aroma had overcome the devil’s stench; curious to know what was powerful enough to overcome the Evil One Berta tasted what was left in the pan…

Others say Panforte is older still: An orphan who followed the comet to Baby Jesus tried to give him the crust of bread he had in his pocket; Joseph took it, gave a crumb to one of the birds whose nest was in the rafters overhead, and returned the rest to the boy, whose eyes filled with tears at the thought that his gift was too poor. Then a voice thanked him, and when he returned home to the hovel he shared with his grandmother he found his parents, his mother radiant and his father in burnished armor, while the table was decked for a feast, with sumptuous platters arranged around an exquisite pastry made with almonds, honey and candied fruit…

No matter how you look at it, there is something magical about the pan pepato (peppered, i.e. spiced) bread) that developed into panforte. Over the centuries there have been many variations, as new ingredients were discovered or became available. In the 1820s the Parenti bakery introduced a chocolate laced variety that was immensely popular for a time, and is still sold, but now the most popular varieties are Panforte Nero and Panforte Margherita.

Panforte Nero is, as its name implies, dark, and has an underlying bitter taste conferred by bitter almonds; it’s sought out by connoisseurs.

Panforte Margherita is light colored and much more delicate, with a dusting of confectioner’s sugar; Enrico Righi developed the recipe in 1879 and first offered it to Queen Margerita, who came to see the Palio with King Umberto every year.

Siena's Panforte Nero

Siena’s Panforte Nero

Most printed recipes for panforte yield industrial quantities — 50 pounds or more. These are more manageable; the quantities for panforte nero are from Il Re Dei Cuochi, published anonymously by Salani in 1885, while those for Panforte Margherita are from a collection of traditional Tuscan recipes.

Panforte Nero:

  • 2 1/2 ounces baking chocolate
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 1 cup less 2 tablespoons shelled almonds
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 4 shelled bitter almonds
  • 1 3/4 cups flour
  • A handful of pine nuts
  • 1/2 teaspoon. ground cinnamon
  • About 4 ounces candied citron
  • The grated rind of a lemon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground pepper

Panforte Margherita:

  • 1 3/4 cups flour
  • 1 3/4 cups confectioner’s sugar
  • 3/4 cup honey
  • 1 cup nutmeats
  • 1 3/4 cup shelled almonds
  • 2 ounces candied citron
  • 8 ounces candied fruit peel (oranges candied melon rind and such)
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • A pinch of allspice
  • A scant teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 tablespoon confectioner’s sugar

For both: 15 Wafers (the kind used for communion; available from delicatessens)

Once you have assembled the ingredients, proceed as follows:

Parboil the nuts and toast them lightly. If you are making Panforte Nero, mash half the almonds with the bitter almonds, chop the rest with the pine nuts, and then combine the two; if you are making Panforte Margherita chop the nuts together. Dice the candied fruit and mix it and the spices with the nuts, then mix in the flour.

Line a 9-inch diameter deep dish pan with the wafers.

Using a copper or heavy-bottomed pot and a very low flame, set the sugar, honey, chocolate (for Panforte Nero) and a drop of water to boil. Stir continuously with a wooden spoon, being careful to keep the mixture from sticking. When the syrup reaches the hard-ball stage, remove the pot from the stove and stir in the fruit and nut mixture.

Pour the resulting batter into the pan, smoothing the top with a dampened knife. Bake in a 300 F oven for about a half hour. The panforte should not brown.

When the panforte’s done, remove the pan from the oven and trim the excess wafers sticking up around it. If you are making panforte Margherita, sprinkle the confectioner’s sugar over it. Serve cold, with vinsanto.

A final word on panforte: It is available in delicatessens outside of Siena (generally the Margherita variety), in several sizes, the most common of which is about a half-inch thick and 9 inches across (1 cm by about 27, for the metric among us). You may also be able to find the thicker variety that’s proudly displayed in the windows of Siena’s bars and pastry shops, which is what you should buy if you visit Siena; I suggest you seek out the Pasticceria Bini — if you face the the Duomo, go right, right at the next square, and continue over the hill to the gate, about a five-minute walk. They’re to the left just inside the gate.

A much easier recipe from Judy Francini, in a single page, and illustrated.