Jul 30, 2009

Tortino di lamponi - No bake raspberry tart recipe

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, 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
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? Or perhaps some bubbles? Uncork, and commence drooling.

Jul 27, 2009

The fountains of Rome

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 2500 funny looking drinking fountains scattered across the city. 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, water flows constantly, pure, fresh, and in most cases, drinkable.
Nasone drinking fountain
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. Always cold and filtered, mineral-rich and delicious.

Whenever I stroll down the cobblestoned streets of the Eternal City and come upon its fontane, I always wonder, how 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 (and still does) its water––about 38 million gallons a day––through a mighty system of aqueducts.
Fontana di Piazza del Popolo, designed by Valadier in 1816-20

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 GianLorenzo Bernini, located at the foot of the Spanish Steps

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 Termini 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 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 Jewish Quarter

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 temple

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

Italian chocolate - Naples

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.
Italian chocolate - Naples , Gay-Odin
Italian chocolate - Naples , Gay-Odin
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.
Italian chocolate - Naples , Gay-Odin
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.
Italian chocolate - Naples , Gay-Odin
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.
Italian chocolate - Naples , Gay-Odin
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.
Italian chocolate - Naples , Gay-OdinSome of the molds used in the chocolate factory...

Italian chocolate - Naples , Gay-Odin
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 foresta bark is quite delectable, I like the Vesuvio the best. Imagine a solid block of chocolate in the shape of the Mt. Vesuvius volcano, sometimes taking on mammoth proportions...
Italian chocolate - Naples , Gay-OdinAerial 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.

Italian chocolate - Naples , Gay-Odin
The city of Naples welcomed me with open arms during my time there. I overdosed 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...
Italian chocolate - Naples , Gay-OdinSempre nel mio cuore.

Jul 24, 2009

Jet-lag ramblings

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.

There's exploded luggage on the bedroom floor: vitamins, supplements and ziploc bags are 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?

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 of 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 resonated as we slided 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 breezed by. We fed our bodies a bad beef dinner and hydrated with lots of replenishing water, moisturizer and Evian mist spray. Mr E romantically watches the sunset outside his window and soon curled up into deep sleep. Eyes transfixed to screen, I passively watched a film with no headphones and tried to do my ankle rolls to avoid deep vein thrombosis in my lower limbs.

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

We made it to down to sunlit Fiumicino airport in time to find our luggage didn't make the Carl Lewis-like connection dash in NY. It was 35°C (95°F) and 96% humidity, which made it feel more like Jakarta than the Eternal City over by the conveyor belt, but the mood was frosty among us transit passengers. No air con, so a chilled rivulet of sweat ran down my spine as I made 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 person over at the Lost Luggage counter, we cleared customs and ran 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.