Jul 30, 2009

Tortino di lamponi - No bake raspberry tart

When I really have no energy left for cooking after unpacking and recovering from the labors of vacation, I usually resort to easy and quick recipes to cheat my way onto the dinner table, and bring happy faces all around.

The heat in Rome can reach Turkish hammam-style. Scorching 38° C with 99% humidity level, raises heat perception to an equivalent of 105.8° F - not pretty when it's 11:00 pm.

On one of those similar evenings, as I stood there in the dark, wearing a birthday suit in the kitchen with both the freezer and fridge doors open, my eyes landed on the 2 cups of fresh raspberries bought the day before at the farmer's market. This brought to mind a steadfast summer classic, the Tortino di Lamponi. Here is a dessert recipe for all you sweltering friends who have no desire whatsoever to light an oven and bake. It takes 20 minutes to prep, 1 hour to chill and 5 minutes to finish off. And then it ends up looking like this, before disappearing quickly.

Image by Culinary Concoctions by Peabody

Tortino di lamponi, or an easy no-bake Raspberry Tart
200 g (1 cup) digestive biscuits (or graham crackers)
100 g (1/2 cup) butter, melted
200 g (1 cup) mascarpone cheese
3 tbsp whipping cream
3 drops natural vanilla extract, or 1/2 tsp vanillin
Confectioner's sugar to taste
400 g (2 cups, 14 oz) fresh raspberries
2 fresh mint leaves, coarsely chopped (optional)
50 g (1/4 cup) raspberry glaze (which is simply melted raspberry jam)

Blitz the biscuits in the food processor until they form coarse crumbs. If you prefer you can put them in a sealed ziploc bag and bash the hell out of them with a rolling pin. Tip into a mixing bowl, add the melted butter and a tablespoon of water, and work in with your fingertips until clumpy.

Start by spooning about half the mixture in the center of a spring-form pan or loose bottom tart tin. Using the back of a large metal spoon and your fingers, press down firmly and evenly. Gradually add more mixture as needed to line the base and sides of the pan. Any leftover mixture can be frozen and crumbled over gelato).

Refrigerate the lined pan for at least 1 hour, or overnight if convenient.

Whisk together the mascarpone, cream and vanilla, sweeten to your liking with the powdered sugar, and refrigerate until needed. Shortly before serving your meal, spread the mascarpone cream over the chilled tart and return to the refrigerator.

Just before serving, lift the tart carefully out of the pan, and place on a serving dish. Heap the raspberries on top, sprinkle with chopped mint leaves and either dust with more icing sugar if you like, or use a pastry brush (or heavy-duty paper towels) to coat the fruit with the raspberry glaze.

Do you have a decent bottle of chilled rosé? Uncork it then, and commence drooling.

Jul 27, 2009


One of the great things about Rome is its magnificent fountains, and they are everywhere. There are 280 fountains in Rome, and that's not counting the nasoni, the funny looking drinking fountains pictured below. Water, water, water everywhere. Rome’s water system was one of the wonders of the world, and it still is. From the famous Trevi Fountain to the nasoni (meaning 'big noses' because of the shape of their spout), water flows constantly, pure, fresh, and drinkable.

The fountain basins are clean and free of debris and the water sparkles through to the bottom. It comes from deep springs and is as cool and pure as mineral water. It still amazes me to find, all of a sudden, a nasone around a corner with continuously running water where I can put my palm to its spout and drink the spilling arched jet pushed through the small hole in the top, or at which I can fill my bottle and drink it on the go.
Romans are great drinkers of water. In any restaurant, asking for a liter of acqua minerale for two is normal. You have a choice of naturale or frizzante. That last word always makes me smile because it reminds me of the French word “friser”, meaning “to curl”. And indeed, the sparkling water bubbles make my tongue curl up and lips smack. Ahhhhh, so refreshing!

Fontana di Piazza del Popolo, designed by Valadier in 1816-20

Whenever I stroll down the cobblestoned streets of the Eternal City and come upon its fontane, I always wonder, how the heck have all these majestic fountains been working over time without a motor to pump the water? Looking back to my art history notes with Mr. Ceen, my favorite high school teacher, I am reminded how ancient Rome received all of its water (about 38 million gallons a day) through a mighty system of aqueducts.
All water flowed to the city by gravity, but because it was arriving from several surrounding hills, it could be stored in a network of large cisterns very similar in concept to today's water towers (the main difference is that cisterns are filled from the top). Water flowed from the cisterns either through pipes to individual homes or to public distribution points.
Fontane served both decorative and functional purposes, since people could bring their anforas (and later in history, their demijohns) to the fountain to collect water. The cisterns provided the height needed to generate water pressure for the fountains to spray the way they still do to this day. Some fountains were the actual city "end" of a certain acqueduct, like for example those of the Acqua Virgo, Acqua Marcia or Acqua Felix sources.

Pliny the Elder once wrote: "If anyone will consider the abundance of Rome's public supply of water, for baths, cisterns, ditches, houses, gardens, villas; and take into account the distance over which it travels, the arches reared, the mountains pierced, the valleys spanned - one will admit that there never was anything more marvelous in the whole world."

I can't list all 280 here, but a few I must mention, and they are:

Fontana di Santa Maria in Trastevere (4-8th century) one of the oldest in Rome;

Fontana dei Libri (fountain of the books), located on via Staderari, between Piazza della Rotonda (where the Pantheon sits) and Piazza Navona on the side of the Chiesa di Sant'Eustacchio;

Fontana delle Tartarughe (Tortoise Fountain)
built by Taddeo Landini and Giacomo della Porta, located in Piazza Mattei;

Fontana della Barcaccia (the leaking boat)
by P. Bernini, father of Gian Lorenzo Bernini,
located at the foot of the Spanish steps in Piazza di Spagna;

Fontana del Tritone (1642-43)
by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, located in Piazza Barberini;

Fontana delle Naiadi (nymphs) (1900), very controversial at the time because of the cavorting and bodacious naked nymphs. This fountain is located in Piazza della Repubblica, not far from the train station;

Fontana degli Artisti (fountain of the artists),
Via Margutta - where all the prettiest art galleries are;

Fontana di Nettuno (Neptune) (1574),
built by Giacomo della Porta and located at the northern end of Piazza Navona;

Fontana dei Fiumi (fountain of the rivers) (1648-51)
by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the centerpiece in Piazza Navona. It portrays the 4 major rivers and part of an endless dispute with Borromini who built the church facing it;

Fontana di Piazza Farnese (1626)
by Girolamo Rainaldi, located in Piazza Farnese. There are 2 giant fountains in this piazza of the Palazzo Farnese - which is now the French Embassy - each donning the fleur de lys;

Fountain of St. Peter's Square
stands in the breathtaking Michelangelo piazza facing the Basilica. It is part of a matched pair, one by Maderno (1614) and the other, on the northern side of the embracing square is by Bernini and added later;

Fontana del Mosè (Moses fountain) (1587)
commemorates the opening of the Acqua Felice aqueduct.
Also known Fontana dell'Acqua Felice, built during the reign of Pope Sixtus V;

Fontana di Piazza delle Cinque Scole, built by Giacomo della Porta. The fountain and piazza are named after the five rabbinical schools located in the old Roman Ghetto;

Fontana di Trevi (Trevi Fountain) (1732-62) by Nicola Salvi and completed by Giuseppe Parini, commemorates the completion of the Acqua Vergine acqueduct begun in 19BC. This is the world-famous fountain where legend has it, if you toss coins over your shoulder into its waters, you are sure to return to Rome one day. It is built on the rear end of Palazzo Poli. The basin was built with the cash collected from taxes levied on wine!

Fontana del Pantheon (1575)
designed by Giacomo della Porta and located in front of the most gorgeous, still standing, entirely roofed Roman structure;

Le Quattro Fontane, ([one of] the four fountains) (1593),
located at the Quirinale crossroads;

Acqua Paola (more often referred to as Fontanone, or Fontana di Ponte Sisto, after the bridge near where it is located above Piazza Trilussa in Trastevere;

Fontana delle Api (fountain of the bees) (1641)
by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in Via Veneto. It portrays the Borghese family emblem of the 3 bees on an open clam valve.

My favorite fountain is in the Villa Borghese gardens. It is nestled in a secluded area and it has a twin on the opposite side of the park. It bubbles quietly in the shady calm of its hiding place. The fountain area is entirely surrounded by a marble wall, an oval bench that runs around the fountain. It is a pleasant place to read, relax, meditate. A flute player often comes here to practice. I used to come here to nurse MrE during his first weeks of life.

The light here is beautiful. And the sound of the rippling rivulets cascading from the gurgling top to the basin make listening a zen experience. Every Sunday I take my son there. It has become somewhat of a tradition. We explore the park, play soccer with a pinecone, crack open pine nuts with a stone, picking out its precious bounty eating them meticulously, and then we sit at the oval fountain in silence for a few minutes. Mr E hurls pebbles in the basin, while I watch him, smiling.

Jul 25, 2009

Italy's Chocoland part III

Some time ago I started seriously broaching my addiction problem on this site. I had made it a point to go to weekly sessions and speak openly about the special places in Italy where said addiction can be fueled. I spilled the beans (no pun intended) on Torino here. Then I told of the temptations in Modica here. I let time and work get in the way of rehab, but today I return to my Chocolate Dependency podium and I will tell you a little about Napoli, the most beautiful city in the world.

Specifically, I will indiscreetly reveal secret information about a sinful place called Gay-Odin. I have a long-standing relationship with the products sold within. I have spent more than I could afford in that joint. I have made up excuses for arriving late at work, so I could sample some of their fares early in the morning, as soon as the pusher opened shop. I lived in Napoli for 2 and a half years and during that time, Gay-Odin had become my obsession.

If you’ve visited Napoli and along with authentic pizza and seafood fare, you have not yet tasted this exquisite chocolate brand, please repair.
The Art Nuveau wood-paneled windows of Gay-Odin chocolatier boutique only allow you to glimpse at the wonders stored inside. Gay-Odin is Neapolitan history in a box of chocolates. If you could travel back in time and found yourself strolling down Napoli’s elegant Via Chiaja during the late 1800s, the aroma in the air would be the first thing to strike you as unusual. The unexpected fragrance of chocolate spreading to alleys, fashion boutiques, cafes and tailor shops would guide you to Isidoro’s little workshop tucked away in a small courtyard. Chocolatier Isidoro Odin had recently transferred his greatest passion from native Alba (Italy’s chocolate epicenter, Piedmont) to Napoli taking with him his craft, his desire to create unfamiliar flavor combinations, experiment with sweetness, and mixing new ingredients.

It is thanks to the penetrating smell of his chocolate creations that Gay-Odin’s history begins, it was in fact the inviting aroma that attracted a growing clientele to his tiny shop. Mostly the socialite Neapolitan glitterati, customers adopting the fashionable habit of buying chocolates at midday, when the smell of production was at its peak. Isidoro's fame grew to the point where in 1922 he was able to open his own manufacturing plant in the heart of the city: five storeys of pleasure, in the rich high class section of town. That same plant is in full function to this day, you can visit the Gay-Odin website for a virtual back in time visit of the master chocolatier's heritage. Further impulse to the growth of business was the marriage to Onorina Gay: the name Gay-Odin is born, shops multiply in town, but the couple continues to work on the artisanal path of chocolate-making. That resist to this day.

Trademark products include “naked” unwrapped pralines of all kinds sold by weight, “Foresta“, a Gay-Odin creation that is a flaky bar of rich chocolate that resembles rough and twisty tree bark (very similar to the British Cadbury Flake bar). The assortment of other chocolate shapes and variations include Tarallini, donut-shaped and filled with Strega liquer, Noci, walnut shaped and enclosed in a wafer-like casing and Ostriche, oyster-shaped and filled with a cream mousse. When I travel to Napoli, I always stock up on Gay-Odin's dark chocolate shot glasses for drinking liqueur and zesty limoncello, the signature pralines, truffles, tablets and block confections, an endless array of lustful bite size morsels of bliss in my otherwise empty suitcase.

Some of the molds used in the chocolate factory...

During holiday season, Neapolitan families stock up on boxes of Gay-Odin goodness to distribute to friends and relatives and in the summer, gelato flavors based on their chocolate concoctions take center stage. Though the “Foresta” is quite delectable, I like the Vesuvius the best. Imagine a solid block of chocolate in the shape of the Mt. Vesuvius volcano, sometimes taking on mammoth proportions...

Aerial view of the real thing

In defense of my drug problem, as a last attempt, I can suggest a few positive aspects of chocolate. It is not all bad skin and extra kilos around the midriff. Romantic lore in fact commonly identifies chocolate as an aphrodisiac. The famed sexual inspiring properties of chocolate are most often associated with the simple sensual pleasure of its consumption. It’s a fact that chocolate’s sweet and fatty nature stimulates the hypothalamus, inducing pleasureable sensations as well as affecting natural levels of cheer and serotonin. Chocolate is in effect a legal psychoactive drug, your honor.

The city of Naples welcomed me with open arms during my time there. I OD'd on sunshine, awesome seafood, singing fishermen sailing the bay below my terrace, glimmering blue waters, trascendental pizza, gorgeous sunsets, passionate love and Gay-Odin. Despite what it did to my weight, I will forever be grateful to la mia bella Napoli...

Sempre nel mio cuore.

Jul 24, 2009

Ode to the bidet

We're back. Jet lagged beyond belief and bloated. Holding images of beautiful California coasts and family reunions in our bloodshot eyes, trying to figure out what our bodies are asking of us. Lame, foot-dragging zombie by day, famished vixen by night. It's 5 am and I could eat a horse. Exploded luggage on the floor: vitamins, supplements and ziploc bags scattered everywhere. Brand new books, toddler clothes and kitchen tools piled tidily on the bathroom sink. In the chaos of unpacking madness, I cast a sideways glance at my bidet and I smile with relief. How do they do it elsewhere? I mean, how can anybody LIVE without a bidet? Does everyone shower after doing number 2?

The flight from San Francisco left late, on a downsized aircraft which left behind 40 very angry boarding pass-holding passengers. We shared very little leg room in the 24th coach class row of the teeny 757 with a quiet gentleman who worked on his laptop for the entire time. We ate a $10 breakfast of rich yogurt, ice cold milk and soggy granola. We drank plenty juice and watered down coffee. Played cards and painted psychedelic dinosaurs in our coloring books. What kept worrying me the entire flight to New York was that we had a close connection to meet to make the final Rome leg of our journey, and there was only one aisle and one exit, far far away at the nose of the plane, and we were sitting at the tail end of it. We landed in NY at exactly the time our international flight began boarding, so dragging a life-size stuffed Labrador retriever and the rest of our hand luggage across the American Airlines terminal in JFK was like when you're trying to run in a dream, where your legs feel like lead and visions of gate 14 stretch away like in a vintage Hitchcock dolly zoom shot.

The final boarding call resonates as we glide across time warp on our moving walkway, straight into a full fledged hormonal meltdown with the deadpan flight attendant ripping boarding pass stubs.
Once we settle in the otherwise empty aircraft, the flight breezes by. We feed our bodies a bad beef dinner and lots of replenishing water, moisturizer and Evian mist spray. Mr E romantically watches the sunset outside his window and soon curls up into deep sleep. Eyes transfixed to screen, I passively watch a film with no headphones and try to do my ankle rolls to avoid deep vein thrombosis in my lower limbs.

Eight and 1/2 hours later the sun rises, orange and pink, over France. Flashes of distant lightning illuminate whipped cream clouds over speckles of light, small clusters of sleepy villages and rural life, way down below.

We make it to down to sunlit Fiumicino airport in time to find our luggage didn't make the Carl Lewis-like connection dash. It is 35°C (95°F) and 96% humidity, which makes it feel more like Jakarta than the Eternal City over by the conveyor belt, but the mood is frosty among us transit passengers. No air con here, so a chilled rivulet of sweat runs down my spine as I make out a mental inventory of the contents of our 4 VERY HEAVY suitcases, still sitting pretty in a JFK air terminal somewhere. After a brief chat with the Property Irregularity chick over at the Lost Luggage counter, we clear customs and run into my mother's Mitzouko-smelling bosom, embracing and laughing/crying with very little or no restraint.

I am here now, posting this without spellcheck. A bottomless pit at the mouth of my stomach, and the peanut butter tub looming eerily on the kitchen counter. I will begin my new healthy eating regime tomorrow. I have gained 600 pounds in America, so it'll be adieu to carbs for a while. I will nonetheless cook for my loved ones. I will resume sharing my recipes here on this blog, many of which gathered during my travels to the New World. I will start exercising and banning all chocolate and vino from my table for a while, until I can fit back in my old clothes again. I will be good and I won't cheat. I will lose 10 kilos (22 lbs) before I start the new film in the fall. I will do it, I swear. But for now, I'll sneak to the kitchen and make me a sloppy PB&J, all by myself, and devour it with a smile and a tall glass of whole milk, in the silence of this gorgeous Roman dawn.

Buongiorno, Roma.
It's been a great vacation, but it feels good to be back home.

Jul 16, 2009

Jul 12, 2009

Trippin' and toppin'

Only a few days left on our California vacation, but I thought I could share a few ideas before returning to full time blogging. Just to keep your appetite awake, I thought I could share a few new culinary notions I recently learned in the Big Country:

There's a great ice cream place called Scoop du Jour in East Hampton that is best known for it's donuts than the newfangled cold stone gelato+topping kneading technique. Crowds flock here, and it is one of the best family owned businesses that still exists in town and you can smell the frying ciambellas for miles. The famed artisanal donuts are made with this amazing contraption here:

The pastry dough is kneaded in a funnel like container that at the open end has a ring-shaped opening, it is forced through this and dropped into the scalding oil selectively, so when one donut is dropped to the left, the machine automatically shifts to the right side of the receiving tray to drop the next one. The donuts float sideways on a conveyor belt to a cooling station where they are then fished out and topped with powdered sugar or cinnamon. They are eaten hot, provoking loud moaning sounds by the lucky consumers.


When will I think bruschetta from now on, I will never again be snobbish about topping it with anything other than rubbed garlic, extra virgin olive oil and salt. Chopped heirloom tomatoes used to be the only exception, but my stepmom's avocado recipe from Carmel Belle made me broaden my crispy bread horizons. She lightly drizzled olive oil on thin slices of ciabatta or sourdough and broiled them for 3 minutes. She then thinly carved a ripe avocado and topped the warm toasted bread with it. One last thread of olive oil, a generous dust of kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper and we all devoured the California bruschetta while still hot, alongside a chilled and fashionable Pinot Grigio.


California Pizza Kitchen is always fun for take out dinner and a good movie after a day of scampering around the coast, plus it gives me a chance to put a twist on the usual pizza I have in Italy. So tonight we shared the CPK's
Thai Chicken pizza, topped with pieces of chicken breast marinated in a spicy peanut-ginger and sesame sauce, Mozzarella cheese, green onions, bean sprouts, julienne carrots, cilantro and roasted peanuts; and one Original BBQ Chicken, the chain's most popular pizza, introduced in the first Beverly Hills restaurant in 1985. This curious pizza is topped with barbecue sauce, smoked Gouda and Mozzarella cheeses, cubed barbecued chicken, sliced red onions and cilantro. The Chardonnay's sweetness matched the pizza's quirky flavor combos to perfection.


Here's a flower I saw in Capitola this afternoon, while taking a leisurely stroll down the small Riverview Avenue path that flanks the canal.

The owner of one of the many pretty yards that dotted the narrow path was watering his patch as I stole a snapshot of a very interesting looking flower, the likes I had never seen. The kind gentleman asked me to take a sniff and to my surprise the deep burgundy colored Cosmos smelled of... chocolate! I was in heaven. A beautiful flower that smells like chocolate? Being the passionate flower and choc lover that I am, this particular Nature's creature was perfect under every aspect. The kind man plucked one of his aromatic flowers and gave it to me with a smile. I took a few steps and making sure he didn't notice...
... I took a small bite.

It didn't taste like chocolate. Alas.

Jul 1, 2009

7 et al.

Lovely Janet of Under the Blood Red Sky has kindly prized me with the Premio Meme Award.

In order to accept it, I must tell you seven things about myself. I have played along in quite a number of memes here - here - here and here.
So if you're not sick of me yet, here are 7 more things about me you might not know:

Uno. I am the second of 4 only children. Let me rephrase that.
My siblings and I solely share one parent, so in effect we are 4 only children. Also, my youngest half sister G in Italy and my younger half brother D in California are not related but they have a half sister in common: me. Confused?

Due. I'm afraid of flying. Yep. And I am among those who applaud when the wheels touch down on the runway. Big howling ovations and loud whistles of joy.

Tre. I sometimes quite like the feeling of a good beer buzz, early in the morning. And no, I'm not an alcoholic.

Quattro. I am nearsighted. And I lost a full diopter in each eye after giving birth to my son. Old wives tale in Italy says you lose a tooth for every son. Guess I got lucky. So I wear glasses and sometimes disposable contacts. That's when I don't have pinkeye.

Cinque. My eyes are green. My son's father too has very pale green eyes, but my son's are a gorgeous chestnut brown. Strong grandparent genes.

Sei. I'm learning to pack light. Big achievement. This trait does not otherwise run in my family.

Sette. Tomorrow morning I leave for the U.S. with my little boy. I will be visiting my father, old friends, recently made friends, blog friends, and making new ones along the journey. I will be afraid to fly, and I will pretend I'm not, so not to scare my small child who will - on the other hand - be riding on an airplane for the very first time. I will be landing in JFK and saluting the rest of the blood that runs in my veins as I cross the threshold.
I will be embracing my American family after a very long time. I will be smelling that unique aroma of America in the tree-lined streets and wood-built homes. I will be eating In-And-Out burgers. I will be walking on both the Pacific Ocean and Atlantic Ocean beaches. I will be locking eyes with sea otters and hearing sea lions roar. I will be cooking in a kitchen on the other side of the globe, using unusual ingredients we don't get here in Europe like for example jicama, yams, butternut squash and poblano chiles. I will be taking my son to the Monterey Bay Aquarium to watch, among others, the sharks swim large, slow circles. My heart sings at the thought of showing him so many beautiful places. I will teach him more words in English. I will be learning new things with him. I will be contented just sitting in the back porch soaking up sun (and/or fog). I will be driving up the West Coast from L.A. and stopping at Nepenthe in Big Sur, one of my favorite places in the world. I will suffer odd sleeping patterns: awake at 4 am, so hungry that I could eat a horse; and narcoleptic at 10am. I will laugh 'til it hurts at my brother's humor and my father's jokes. I will watch the latest episodes of my favorite shows and then later extort considerable amounts of money from my Italian buddies in exchange for storyline updates. I will spend time with my agent, conjuring up editorial plans for my book. I will be talking for hours about a million things with T, my stepmom. I will be going to the movies and eating a bucket of popcorn. I will be listening to the waves. I will be saying thank you. I will be smiling.

I will also be saying good-bye to my blog friends for a short while. I will be taking a break from regular blogging this month. I don't know if I'll be able to post from overseas. I'll try, but I don't want to make a commitment I cannot meet. I will think of each of you, perhaps read your blogs secretly. And I will check my inbox in case you have left me a note. I will miss you. And I will take many pictures and write in my journal every day. I wish you all a relaxed and fun-filled July. Thank you all for your visits, your lovely comments, and your warm friendship in these last 6 months. I hope that all my readers will feel welcome to browse through my post archive. Just pull up a chair by the stove, pour yourself a glass of wine or a cup of espresso and read along.

Uh oh, that's a little more than seven facts...