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An evening of antipasti….Or, “Happy Birthday to Me”

January 24, 2011

On Saturday night we had a very small gathering in our home in celebration of my 31st birthday. It seemed a good occasion to further explore the world of antipasti—and what a delicious world it is! The evening’s menu took us from Piedmont in the north-west to Sicily in the very south of Italy. The line-up? Fonduta and tortellini, Caponata, Ciabatta, Funghi arrosti con pignoli (take two…yes, I liked the dish that much), a spread of salame, prosciutto, roasted red pepper and dipping oil. We finished off the evening with tiramisu. Before I tell you more about all of these lovely delectables, allow me to first say that, at 31, I learned a valuable lesson about myself: I am terrible at following recipes. Not only should we make this the year of Italian cooking, but we should make it the year of Sarah-learns-to-follow-the-recipe.

I am not being self-deprecating; my renegade spirit in the kitchen has its advantages. It’s good to be able to rummage through the fridge and the cupboards and make something from “nothing,” and I love consulting cookbooks and the internet for inspiration, but ultimately following my intuition at the stove or at the mixing bowl. And the creamy white substance we dipped our tortellini in was delicious, but I am quite sure it was not fonduta.

We have been looking for a cookbook or two to guide us through this year. Something that elaborates on the regional (nay, the city-to-city and village-to-village!) qualities of Italian cooking, something that is as true to Italian cooking as you can get in the English language. We recently discovered Italian Food, by Elizabeth David. It seems to me that Mrs. David did for England and Italian food what Julia Child did for the U.S. and French food. I am currently perusing a 1977 edition of her cookbook (which originally appeared in 1954), and in it I discovered a recipe for fonduta, “one of the most famous dishes of Piedmont.” Mrs. David specifies, “it is not to be confused with Swiss fondue.” But ah! If it is anything like fondue it will be the perfect centrepiece for the antipasti table! Fonduta is made with fontina, a buttery Piedmontese cheese, milk, eggs (or merely egg yolk), and butter. In Piedmont, between October and March, it is topped with very fine slices of raw white truffles. “A combination,” Mrs. David writes, “that is so remarkably right that there is really no substitute.”

Now. I knew I would hardly be able to find white truffles in Vancouver, and even if I did I would not be able to afford them. What I did acquire for the occasion was essence of white truffle—a very small bottle of white truffle-infused olive oil. It is essence of white truffle and not “truffle oil” because there is no fleck of truffle floating at the bottom of the bottle. My plan was to finish the fonduta with a little drizzle of the white truffle essence.

Alas! Not only did I fail to fully imbibe Mrs. David’s recipe ahead of time (“Cut the cheese into small dice and cover it with milk. Leave it to steep for at least 4 hours”), when it came time to serve up the fonduta I completely forgot the essence of white truffle. It remained bottled, standing forgotten on our kitchen wine rack. As for the fonduta, as my guests were arriving and I was realizing that bit about steeping the cheese in milk for four hours (!), I turned to a website I discovered this week—the website from which I took my tiramisu recipe—ItalianMade. I had glanced at their fonduta recipe earlier in the week (I really must learn to do more than glance at recipes), and did not recall anything about a four-hour steeping time. I started in on their method of making fonduta, made a snap judgment that eight ounces of cheese would not be enough for my party of six and doubled it, failing to note that, for this recipe, you also add eight ounces of butter and four egg yolks later on. I did not, in the end, want to add a full pound of butter to my fonduta, so I doubled the milk and the cheese, but not the egg and the butter. This made, I am quite sure, for a far runnier fonduta than would be the norm—or the result from either Elizabeth David’s or ItalianMade’s recipe. It was delicious even yet (how could it not be with a pound of cheese and half a pound of butter??), and the two types of fresh tortellini that I purchased at a local pasta shop (prosciutto and butternut squash) were wonderful for dipping. We were quite content in the end, though Joshua said, after his first bite, that the fonduta reminded him of “the blue box macaroni and cheese”—a horrifying comment in my opinion—which he quickly amended by saying that it reminded him of mac & cheese in that “makes-you-feel-at-home sort of way.” Well. I leave you with both recipes, and eagerly await any reports on how either of them turn out.

Lest this post become unbearably long, I will speed up the pace by saying that the caponata—a Sicilian eggplant relish we learned about from Moosewood—was wonderful (if I can manage to grow eggplant in this northern climate, I will try canning some this summer), and the ciabatta (bread is my other current food obsession and I am learning heaps from Susan at Wild Yeast; the ciabatta recipe is from her) was more than a worthy platform for the artisan salame (for those of you in Vancouver, check out Moccia). You already know how I feel about funghi arrosti con pignoli.

Now, at last: dolce! It didn’t take long for me to decide what dessert I wanted to make for my birthday. Tiramisu won my heart long ago. I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to make it. As noted, I used the recipe from ItalianMade, though I nearly interfered too quickly with this one, too. After creaming the mascarpone, sugar and egg yolks, I looked at how thick the mixture was and thought, “unspreadable!” How would I possibly layer it with the delicate, espresso-soaked lady fingers without demolishing them? Not wanting to run out to the store for whipping cream, I nearly added the egg whites to lighten the mascarpone. Then I realized: you still have to mix the cream with espresso and brandy—hold your horses Sarah, it will thin! Which it did. It layered beautifully. I was heavy-handed with the brandy and generous with the amount of espresso I used to “moisten” the ladyfingers (I submerged them and recommend doing so). My only regret is the gigantic bowl I purchased from the local Value Village expressly for the purpose of tiramisu. I’m not sure why I thought it would be the perfect fit…I could have made four times the amount of tiramisu and still have had space in the bowl. No matter. I’m eating the last little bit of leftover tiramisu at this very moment and I think perhaps next time I should double—or triple—the recipe.

Okay. A final word on the “Sarah-needs-to-learn-to-follow-the-recipe” theme. In The Food of Italy Waverly Root notes that, “…while French cooking had become professional cooking even when it is executed by amateurs, Italian cooking has remained basically amateur cooking even when it is executed by professionals. It is, in short, home cooking, la cucina casalinga, human, light-hearted and informal.” So while I do attempt to more faithfully execute recipes as they stand (the goal, after all, is authentic Italian cooking), perhaps the results yielded from that loving—amateur—spirit are closer to the “real thing” than one might imagine.

The recipes:

Fonduta (Elizabeth David, Italian Food)

For each person allow an egg and 3 oz. of Fontina cheese. Cut the cheese into small dice and cover it with milk. Leave it to steep for at least 4 hours.
Put the cheese and any milk not already absorbed, the beaten eggs, and a nut of butter in a double boiler, adding salt and pepper. Cook gently, stirring all the time. The minute the cheese and eggs have amalgamated into a thick cream, pour it into an earthenware or porcelain dish and cover it with very fine slices of raw white truffles. The combination of the cheese and the truffles is so remarkably right that there is really no substitute.

Fonduta (ItalianMade)

Note that fonduta can be served fondue-style, or it can be used as a sauce for fresh pasta such as tortellini. We used some of our leftover fonduta as a sauce for (dry) linguine. Be careful in the reheating–I overheated ours and it emulsified (i.e. separated).

Caponata (from Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant)

Anthony del Plato notes that the vegetables for this relish may vary, but should always include eggplant and celery.

2 small eggplant, unpeeled, chopped into 1/2″ cubes to make 5-6 cups
1 large onion, chopped
1/2 cup olive oil
4 celery stalks, sliced
2 large red or green bell peppers
1 heaping tablespoon minced garlic
3 tomatoes, chopped
1 cup sliced, pitted black olives
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted
1 tablespoon rinsed and dried capers (optional–I omitted these)
3-4 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon salt
fresh ground black pepper

Soak eggplant in salted water to cover for at least 15 minutes, then rinse and dry.
Meanwhile, in a large skillet, saute the onion in some of the olive oil. Add celery, stirring frequently until celery is bright and still somewhat firm; remove onion and celery into a large bowl.
Add more olive oil to the skillet and saute the peppers. When they are almost done, add the garlic and saute for 1 minute more, then add the tomatoes and saute 1 final minute. Add all this to the bowl with the onion and celery.
Add the rest of the oil to the skillet and saute the eggplant until tender and golden. Add the rest of the ingredients to the mixing bowl while the eggplant cooks. Add the eggplant and mix well. Serve hot, cold or at room temperature.

Tiramisu (from ItalianMade, with a few of my adjustments)

3 egg yolks
3 oz. brandy
6 tbs. sugar
3 doz. ladyfingers
2/3 lb. mascarpone
1 oz. cocoa
1 1/2 – 2 cups strong espresso
3 oz. crushed amaretti (A crunchy almond cookie. I believe Trader Joe’s has them and calls them “Bruti mi Bueno” (Ugly but Good)

Beat the yolks with the sugar, add the mascarpone and continue to beat very well until the mixture is smooth. Separate the mixture into two equal portions. To one part, add 1/2 cup of espresso to one portion, and the brandy to the other.

Dip the ladyfingers in remaining espresso as you go, making a layer of them in a deep serving dish. Cover with the mascarpone mixture and carry on alternating layers of ladyfingers with layers of different-flavored types of mascarpone. The last layer should be mascarpone. Refrigerate for about 2 hours. Just before serving, mix 1 oz. cocoa powder with crushed amaretti and sprinkle evenly over the top.

Tiramisù may be made with sponge cake instead of ladyfingers. Ladyfingers can also line the side of the mold instead of being placed on the bottom and in between layers. Tiramisù may also be made into a large bowl with ladyfingers lining the bowl. Flavors and shapes can change according to the cook’s desire.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Mom permalink
    January 24, 2011 8:19 pm

    As always, it’s fun to read your “writings” and this one made me laugh. I almost always follow recipies and how you came to not follow them, but just create, I’m not sure how that happened! I’ve always admired you for that talent….
    The Taramisu bowl is what made me laugh. It did look a little empty! I hope to be there some day when it’s full. Yummy! Love you, Mom

  2. January 24, 2011 9:01 pm

    happy birthday! Wonderful feast, and I like that quote about Italian cooking – it’s one of the reasons I love Mediterranean food. I’m looking forward to trying the caponata especially. Thanks for the recipes and the wildyeast link (breadmaking is on the docket for 2011).

  3. Patty Chestnut permalink
    January 26, 2011 5:49 pm

    I didn’t know you had a problem following directions!! I love the fact that you can rummage in the cupboard and make dinner with what you find – I can’t do that – I need the recipe and I am very good at following directions!!!

    Enjoyed reading what you are doing and it makes me hungry – John loves tiramisu so you can make it sometime when we are there or you are here.

    Love you and glad you had a wonderful birthday. Joshua should be careful what he says – he only ever had Kraft mac and cheese because that is all he would eat.


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