Jan 22, 2010

Pizza Part 3

Welcome back to part 3 of La Pizza series.

So far we've eaten our way through

An introduction to pizza and the history behind Italy's most famous food
Various kinds of Italian pizza and popular toppings

Today we will be closing this pizza series with a virtual tour of the birthplace of pizza, a brief stroll down the dimly lit alleyways of Napoli, for one last slice of authentic pizza and a nosedive in la vita napoletana.

The best pizza in the world is probably at Da Michele

There’s a pizzeria half-hidden away in Napoli’s dark alleys of the seedy central train station area, that serves perhaps the best pizza in the world. Da Michele is a small joint, and always a crowded one. Not even paper tablecloths on the small marble tabletops, and the glasses are all different, some are worn out around the rim from having been washed so many times. Two pizzas on the verbal menu only, marinara and margherita, three sizes each: small, regular and monster. Beverages available are mineral water, Italian beer, sodas. The prices are ridiculously low, and the line outside is unbelievable. The first time I went there, introduced by locals who acted like they were initiating me to a secret society meeting–complete with code handshake and solemn nods–it was a rainy autumn night. After a 20-minute wait outside standing under flimsy umbrellas, we were finally assigned a table by the oven, and while our order of pizzas was in the oven, I got to watch the pizzaiolo’s skills up close. When the food arrived, we clinked beer mugs to friendship and attacked our monsters.

As I moaned with pleasure, biting into my steaming slice of exquisite margherita, I saw what looked like disappointment on the faces of the napoletani sitting around me. They shook their heads and tsk tsk tsk-ed noisily. Our waiter hovered over our small table, apologetic. I didn’t know what the heck was going on, moderately devoid of all that was happening, I ate away, estatic at a pizza the likes I had never had before. What got my attention finally was that none of my friends were eating! Was I not in on something? 

Apparently the rainy night’s damp air had done something dreadful to the dough, tainting it, in their expert opinion. I found it divine, and no matter how much they insisted on the opposite, I ended up eating their leftovers and ordering one more. Next time you’re ever in Napoli, be sure to make a stop at Michele. Even if it rains.

Da Michele
Via Sersale 13
Tel. +39 081 5539204

Pizza a credito

Sophia Loren is singing. A wry smile on her face as she fries her pizzas on a makeshift steaming pan in the street. Customers stop by for a hot and fragrant pizzella fritta more to peer at her voluptuous cleavage rather than for the leavened dough she is frying. Her chubby husband is fanning the flames under the oil and mouth agape, stares transfixed not at Sophia’s ample décolletage, but her hand. “Where’s the ring?” Sophia’s expression betrays she knows. “It must have slipped in someone’s pizza,” is her prompt reply.

The adventures of retrieving the engagement stone narrated in Vittorio De Sica's masterpiece film "L’Oro di Napoli," in the Pizza a Credito episode starring Loren, narrates the impetuous chase in and around the narrow alleys and homes of Napoli’s Quartiere Sanità, only to end with Sophia’s lover returning the ring she had not mislaid in the pizza dough, but in his bed in the opening sequence.

The title of the episode owes its meaning to the old Napoli tradition of buying street food–and these fried delicacies in particular–on credit. The sign behind the characters says, "Eat today, pay in 8 days."

Another similar Napoli custom is that of the caffè sospeso. When a Napoletano is in the mood, instead of only paying for one espresso at the bar, that person pays for two: their own and one for the next client in need. So later, anyone not able to afford un caffè can simply walk up to the counter and ask the barista "any caffè sospesi?" The fortunate beneficiary of caffè sospeso will never know who to thank. A superb act of faith and compassion. Offering a 'hanging coffee' is like saying "it's on me" to the rest of the humanity. Caffè sospeso is an exclusive Neaplitan custom, and reflects in some ways the city's philosophy of life.

At the end of Part 1 I had promised to share another pizza recipe. Did you think I had forgotten? A promise is a promise. Here it is, your own Sophia-style pizzette!

A little pre-planning is necessary. First of all, prepare your steadfast basic pizza dough. If you double the quantities and freeze part of it you can thaw it later and make homemade pizza with different toppings listed in part 2. (That is of course bearing in mind that in this case, you should own a professional wood-fired brick oven. I know, I tend to repeat myself, but I can never stress the oven thing enough). For pizzelle fritte, fortunately, all you need is a frying pan.

For the sauce 

While you wait for the dough to rise, prepare a basic tomato sauce with:

5-6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
500 g (1.1 lb) tomatoes, peeled, seeded and puréed in a blender; or a 14-oz can of crushed tomatoes
1 spicy peperoncino (optional)

Again, quantities are abundant, but it's good to have sauce handy for any recipe.

In a saucepan over medium heat, pour the olive oil and add the garlic. Before it begins coloring, add the tomatoes, salt, and pepper. Cook over medium heat for about 15-20 minutes, until the tomato sauce firms up, stirring frequently.

Leave the pan uncovered to allow the sauce to thicken. To prevent it from spattering, cover the pan with a mesh top or place a wooden spoon across the edge, so that the lid is partially open and the steam can escape.

You will eventually have to heat oil for frying in a large skillet, so take that timing into consideration as well.

When the dough is double its original size, punch it down to eliminate air bubbles.

Divide it into small orbs, each about 5 cm (2”) wide. Flatten each piece to make round disks about 12 cm (4-5”) in diameter.

Bring your oil to frying temperature, and fry your pizzelle 3 or 4 at a time until they are fluffy and light golden. They will balloon irregularly, don't worry, that's what's supposed to happen.

Place them on paper towels on a large plate and let the oil drain briefly. The pizzelle should not be crisp, rather soft and chewy, with a full crumb and large air pockets.

Slather each with an abundant spoonful of tomato sauce, top with a fresh basil leaf and 1 heaped tablespoon of grated Parmigiano. This particular type of pizza must absolutely be eaten piping hot. Tongue-burning hot.

This concludes our journey in the vast world of Pizza as I know and love it.
I hope you took as much pleasure in reading this series as I did in writing it.
Arrivederci from the warm and sunny rolling hills of Italy...

...I'm off to the frozen expanses of northern Sweden* until February on a very cold and interesting assignment.

*latitude 63.1°N longitude 14.3°E

Jan 19, 2010

Pizza Part 2

Welcome back to the second installment of La Pizza segment. Last week we investigated the history, appreciation and basic rules of Italian pizza-making.

From the comments on Part 1, I noticed that many of you are regular pizzaioli. Did any of you attempt baking pizza with the easy recipe provided? Was it good? Different? Any questions? Comments? Was it a triumph, or a debacle?

Non-Italians are used to a different kind of pizza than the one we eat here. Different ingredients and thickness, quantity of topping on a single slice and the overall flavor of pizza outside Italian borders varies widely according to place. Just think of pan-baked Greek, or Chicago-style pizza; or the U.S. Pepperoni topping, which in Italy does not exist. In California I loved eating a Hawaiian barbecued chicken and pineapple pizza, but I don't consider that pizza per se.

But let's take a look at other kinds of pizza we enjoy here in the boot-shaped peninsula.

Besides the already examined Napoli-style pizza which once baked in a wood-fired brick oven should be crispy, tender and fragrant, Italy also boasts a street-food, portable version. In Rome as well as in many other parts of Italy, pizza is available in take-away shops which sell pizza rustica or what is more commonly known as pizza al taglio. This pizza is cooked in long, rectangular baking pans and relatively thick (1–2 cm). The crust is often a little charred on the bottom, and this may be because the pizza is often baked in an electric oven. It is available with a myriad of different toppings, portions are cut with scissors and sold by weight. I love eating pizza al taglio as I window shop. Producing long ribbony strands of molten mozzarella and delightfuly dribbling my chin with hot tomato sauce... ah, bliss.

Another interesting kind is Sicilian-style pizza, sfincione (or sfinciuni, in Sicilian dialect), which has its toppings baked directly into the crust. A particular variety that originated in Messina is focaccia alla messinese, typically made with delicious sauteed endive and anchovies.
In Rome, the term pizza bianca refers to a type of flat, pizza-like bread topped with olive oil and coarse salt. It is also a Roman custom to stuff this white pizza with mortadella, or prosciutto and figs, the result being known as pizza prosciutto e fichi. Read more about pizza bianca on this post.
Calzone ripieno is a turnover-style pizza filled with several ingredients, such as ricotta, salami and mozzarella, and folded over to form a crescent before being baked. In Italian, calzone literally means "large sock", while the word ripieno actually means "filling."

Thick vs Thin, the ancestral Napoli vs. Roma thickness discord

In Italy there are two schools of thought. The Neapolitan fluffy thick border around the medium crust pizza and the Roman ultra-thin, crispy recipe. Try feeding a native of Napoli a Roman-style pizza and vice versa, you’ll only see disgust painted on their faces. Some scholars repute Napoli’s pizza (owning the original patent) as the authentic, but in its interesting difference, the Roman lightweight counterpart is no disappointment. I personally love them both, being my Italian roots planted deeply in both cultures, I belong to each in equal measure. And I eat their pizzas with the same nonpartisan satisfaction.

Best-loved pizza recipes

Listing the constantly updated creative commons of pizza would need a separate publication. The popular Italian pizzas listed below are the ones commonly featured on any pizzeria menu.

Pizza bianca/focaccia

Plain dough base with rosemary, salt and olive oil, sometimes served with prosciutto. Usually spontaneously presented as an appetizer by busy restaurateurs before even taking your order.

Pizza marinara

Tomato sauce, oregano and garlic. Steadfast and reliable.

Pizza margherita

Tomato sauce, fresh basil and mozzarella. Named after and dedicated to Queen Margherita di Savoia on her first visit to the bay of Naples and whose colors reflected those of the newly founded Italian flag. Kids love.

Pizza al prosciutto

Tomato, mozzarella and once baked, topped with slices of prosciutto. Sometimes added with fresh arugula.

Pizza Romana/Napoletana* (or Napoli)

Tomato sauce, mozzarella and anchovies. Thirst-inducing and delightful. Endangered species.
* In Rome, when you order a pizza Napoletana you get one topped with tomato, sauce mozzarella and anchovies; in Naples it's the opposite: that same arrangement is called pizza Romana.

Pizza capricciosa ('capricious')

Tomato sauce, mozzarella, mushrooms, artichokes, ham, black olives and a soft cooked egg. For the capricious and undecided.

Pizza Quattro Stagioni ('four seasons')

Same ingredients found in the capricciosa, but divided in 4 sections, not mixed. No egg.

Pizza Quattro Formaggi ('four cheeses')

Tomato, mozzarella, stracchino, fontina, gorgonzola. Sometimes ricotta can be swapped for one of the last three.

Pizza ai Funghi e Salsicce (or boscaiola, which means 'lumberjack')

Mozzarella, mushrooms and sausages, can be with or without tomato sauce. A winter classic.

Pizza Mare e Monti ('surf and turf')

Mushrooms and shellfish on a tomato sauce base. A little too nouvelle vague for me.

Calzone fritto

Another famous specialty found primarily in Naples, this particular calzone is a disk of pizza dough filled with prosciutto, mozzarella, ricotta and Parmigiano, folded over into a crescent shape, which is then deep-fried. Whenever I engage in one of those, I then have to then check into hospital for liver cloning procedure.

Pizza alla Nutella

Plain focaccia dough, baked to a crisp and smeared with Nutella with profuse abandon. (For those who are not familiar with Nutella, I suggest you read this post). Whipped cream topping and side order of potent espresso are essential for completing this decadent dessert-pizza experience.

Pizza pairing

Even if beer continues to be the most popular and immediate match for pizza, aromatic and sapid whites like Pinot Grigio, Biancolella, a delicate rosé, or spumante bubbles are a dandy drink pairing to pizza Napoletana. For richer pizzas like Capricciosa or anything with mushrooms, Merlot or Piceno reds do justice.

I hope you enjoyed today's featured pizzas. The great thing about this complete meal is that it's fulfilling but not too filling. Care for more?

Then come back Friday for the final insallment of La Pizza, in which we will be taking one last walk together down the narrow alleyways of Napoli, the cradle of Italian pizza.

Jan 16, 2010

Pizza Part 1

Pizza defines Italy. It plays a very important role in the Italian diet, and I can't feel good about blogging all things tasty without mentioning pizza. Being such a vast subject, this post will be divided into 3 parts. Today I will introduce you to some basic facts, a little history and the recipe for the basic pizza dough. Shall I order the beers while you read? Va bene.

Pizza is the most popular creation of all Italian cuisine, and certainly the best known of the Napoli area. Its roots are much older than the tomato that tops it, and pizza is probably one of the oldest existing foods. The Ancient Greeks covered their bread with oils, herbs, and cheese. The Romans developed placenta, a sheet of flour-based dough topped with ricotta cheese and honey and flavored with bay leaves. An early type of pizza was then developed in the later part of the Roman Empire; it was a round wheat loaf divided into 8 sections. Proof of this is in the lava-preserved artifact on display in the Pompeii museum.

Image © Beatrice 
But la pizza, as we know it today–with basic tomato sauce topping–originated in Italy in the late 1700s. It soon became very popular among the destitute as well as with barons and princes of the Bourbon court. Even finicky King Ferdinand I (1751–1825) loved cooking pizza in Napoli’s ornate Capodimonte porcelain ovens.

After the Italian unification, in 1889, in honor of queen Margaret of Savoy, master pizzaiolo Raffaele Esposito created a patriotic pizza, in which the colors of the Italian flag were represented by the white mozzarella topping, red tomato sauce and fresh green basil. He named it Margherita, dedicating it to the queen, who ate it contentedly.

The real Neapolitan pizza must be cooked in a olive wood-fired brick oven, which usually gets fired early in the morning to be employed for dinner pizza (in serious establishments, pizza is hardly ever baked for lunch for that reason). It is then meticulously hand-made by an able pizziaiolo who molds the dough disc with a thinner middle and thicker outer rim. Some believe tossing the pizza in the air produces best overall results. The spectacular image of foot-long blankets of raw dough being hurled in the air above your head is a thrilling experience. Specially if you’re sitting nearby, and wearing a dark outfit.

The ingredients and olive oil are then quickly spread on the disk, and with a brisk movement the pizza is slid on a long-handled shovel called a pizza peel, glided in the oven where it is spun around a few times in order to obtain uniform cooking.

The dough for making pizza in Italy is commercially sold risen and ready for use in most supermarkets. Homemade pizza is however a kind of antithesis, in fact the genuine flavor, texture and pizza definition can only be sought after in specialized pizzeria restaurants that bake their fares in large brick, wood-fired ovens; handled, flipped, tossed and crafted by specially skilled pizzaioli masters, and moreover made with the special hard water of southern Italy.

If you wish to attempt your own homemade pizza, follow these instructions similar to those for breadmaking. While waiting for the dough to rise, browse websites that market wood-fired brick ovens and acrobatic pizza-hurling classes.

Ingredients for basic pizza dough
50 g (1/4 cup) brewer’s yeast
2 cups warm water, plus more if necessary
1 kg (2.2 lbs) all-purpose flour
6 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for greasing the bowl during leavening
30 g (1 oz) salt
2 teaspoons sugar, leveled

Keep handy the tomato sauce, garlic, fresh basil, mozzarella, oregano, salt and pepper and whatever you might like to top your pizza with.

In a small bowl, sprinkle the yeast in a glass of warm water, add the sugar and stir to dissolve both. Set aside until the yeast begins to form bubbles, about 5 minutes. Do the same thing with the salt, dissolve it in a glass of warm water and set aside.

Sift the flour into a large bowl or on a work surface. Mold the flour in a volcano mound–this in Italian is called fontana, 'fountain.'

Pour the yeast mix, olive oil, and the diluted salt emulsion in the crater of your volcano.

Using a spatula, draw the ingredients together. Add the rest of the water slowly and mix with your hands to obtain a solid mass. You may see that you need more water, or if your flour is not too absorbant, you may not use it all. As you keep kneading, a ball of dough will gradually start forming. Sprinkle some flour on the work surface, and transfer the dough on the floured surface. Knead it briefly with your hands pushing and folding it over, just long enough for the dough to take in a little more flour, and until it no longer sticks to your hands.

Grease the inside of another bowl with a little olive oil, and transfer the dough into it. Make a crisscross incision on the top of the ball of dough, and grease it with a very small amount of olive oil. This last step will prevent the surface of the dough from drying and cracking while rising.

Cover the bowl with a kitchen cloth, and set the bowl aside for approximately 1 1/2 to 2 hours until the dough doubles in volume. The time required for rising will depend on the strength of the yeast and the room temperature, which should be around 20–24°C (68–75°F), for the dough to rise properly. Avoid drafts and nearby air conditioning venting shafts.

When the dough is double its original size, punch it down to eliminate air bubbles.

Divvy it up into fist-sized pieces, and roll each into a ball. Flatten each ball to make round disks about 20 cm (8 inches) in diameter. Keep at it stubbornly: flattening the dough into a pizza disc is not easy, but don’t let shrinkage and elasticity disourage you.

When your oven has reached Inferno level, dress your pizza with 2 tablespoons of tomato purée (not more!), a thread of olive oil and some crushed garlic. Pop in the oven and bake for 7-9 minutes.

When ready to serve, drizzle more olive oil and sprinkle a dash of dried oregano and salt. Voilà, Pizza Marinara!

For the Margherita variation: spread the same tablespoon of tomato purée on the flattened pizza disc, spinkle it with diced mozzarella and a pinch of salt. Drizzle with olive oil and into the oven it goes, same procedure. When the pizza is baked and the mozzarella has melted wonderfully, drizzle a bit more olive oil, dot the surface with fresh basil leaves torn into bits, and thank Mr. Esposito profusely.

I hope you enjoyed this introduction to basic Italian pizza. Come back on Tuesday for Part 2 of the series, with an in-depth exploration of the various types of pizza, a detailed list of Italian favorites and another delicious recipe...

Jan 14, 2010

Clementine sciroppate recipe

The marketplace these days is a beautiful winter palette. If you've visited my photoblog Tuesday Jan. 12, you'll have noticed the gorgeous abundance of this season's produce: different kinds of artichokes, broccoli, cauliflower, puntarelle, crisp fennel bulbs, ribbony radicchio, cavolo nero, pumpkins and parsnips; and also wonderful wild kiwi fruits, blood Tarocco oranges, juicy apples and clementines.

Clementines are a very popular smooth and glossy citrus fruit. Initially imported from Spain, Morocco, and other parts of North Africa, Clementines are a cross between a sweet orange and a Chinese mandarin. They are small, very sweet, and usually seedless. Many think of Clementines as small tangerines, but they're a different variety entirely, with a distinctive taste. The y produce a delicious fresh-squeezed juice, but Clementines are mainly an eating fruit. Its small size and lack of seeds make it particularly popular with kids.
They appear on market stalls in the northern hemisphere around November, and they are available for 4-5 months.

Canning them is an excellent way to carry the flavors of winter over into the summer months. The zesty citrus and their syrup are quite pleasant over plain vanilla ice cream, or fresh ricotta, Asiago or goat cheese; or as a topping for spongy chocolate cake.

1 kg (2.2 lbs) small unwaxed, organic clementines
200 g (1 cup) sugar
1 lt (1 quart) non-sparkling mineral water (I use Evian)
4 to 6 10-oz capacity mason jars and capsule screw caps*

Sterilize the marmalade jars and by boiling them in plenty unsalted water for 10 minutes.

During this time, soak the clementines in water and a fistful of baking soda to remove any outer substances from the rind–though very easy to peel, in this recipe the clems keep their skin on.

Put the whole fruits in a large stew pot in plenty mineral water and bring to a boil. Lower the flame and keep at a medium simmer for 15 minutes. Fish out the fruits with a slotted spoon and set aside; saving the water.

Stir in the sugar and resume the boil, at which point add the clementines back to the pot; and boil for 30 more minutes. The sugary water will thicken and become a syrup.

Spoon out the fruits and divide them among the sterilized jars, pouring in just enough syrup to cover them (depending on jar size, you should get 5 or 6 fruits in each).

Firmly close the lid of each jar, turn the jars cap side down and wrap them close together in a warm fleece or woolly blanket in a dimly lit room, away from drafts, overnight. This rather mysterious-sounding procedure is the technique that guarantees pasteurization. Thanks to the heat, jars are hermetically sealed, and through natural vacuum, air is expelled. The result will be that the capsule in the lids of the jars will no longer "pop" when pressed down. If the capsule still pops, repeat pasteurization process with a new lid. Once the jars are vacuum sealed, they can be stored in your pantry for 10-13 months.

Tip: Stir some of the citrusy syrup in one or two tablespoons of mustard (according to taste) as a rascally piquant condiment for bollito misto, cotechino or grilled meats.

*Safe and hygienic preserving is obtained by using new jars and special lids with soft rubber gaskets that ensure a "venting" effect during pasteurization, and that provide an effective, long-lasting vacuum seal. Furthermore, the paint must be suitable for contact with the foods on the inside. The jars and lids I use are The Quattro Stagioni Line by the Italian manufacturer Bormioli Rocco. 
To learn more about the technical features on their website, click HERE

Jan 11, 2010

Happy Birthday, Dad!

DISCLAIMER | This post has nothing to do with food or Italian lifestyle, so it doesn't fit Aglio, Olio & Peperoncino proper. If a mouthwatering recipe or a traditional Roman custom is what you came for, be prepared to find out about something completely different. Today I want to talk about a place I found out about a few days ago. And tell my dad about it.

My dad is a golfer. Ever since I can remember, he has loved the sport. He not only plays once a week, lives in the Monterey Bay–which is golfers' heaven–but he goes as far as enjoying golf on TV (which to me is a mystery, why do the announcers whisper as someone is taking a putt or a drive, when they are actually secluded in a media box somewhere far, far away from the golfer?). One of my father's earliest parent-proudness moments came when aged 10, I hit a Par 2 Birdie in a children's tournament in L.A.

So since today is his birthday–and this post is about a mind-blowing golf course in South Africa, which I am sure he'll appreciate learning about–I want to share it here and dedicate it to him.

I've noticed that over the years, golf has conquered some pretty treacherous terrain, from the sheer cliffs of Scotland, to the portable slabs of grass from hole to hole in an Australian desert town, to the moving ice floes on an island in Northern Greenland—but I may have found the most gobsmacking setting of them all.

Here's a hint: your golf cart is a helicopter...

Introducing the world's steepest Par 3 golf hole: The Extreme 19th at Legend Golf & Safari Resort in South Africa, teeing off now from Hanglip Mountain.

Think of it as a piece of Pebble Beach dropped onto the African plains and then perched on the edge of a skyscraper-sized cliff. To get to the tee box, golfers take a six-seat chopper to a peak roughly the height of the Empire State Building. That puts the ground-level green more than 1,200 feet away and adds a much needed dose of danger to the game—if you slice, you may have to tussle with a rhino to get your ball back.

When you get down to the green (again via the chopper), you'll notice it looks familiar: it's a map of Africa, outfitted with the Continent's exact peaks and valleys, which raises the possibility of banking a putt off Kilimanjaro—or leaving a divot where the Sphinx quietly guards the pyramids.

After you've finished off the full course, you'll have a whole wildlife preserve at your disposal, not to mention a luxury resort complete with lakeside cottages, villas on stilts, spa, photo safari jaunts and a fire-walking workshop that will take you tiptoeing over real live 200-degree coals (still less painful than hitting a bunker).

And finally here's the video that made me want to pack my 9-iron and leave today. Look at what it feels like to tee off the 19th hole at Legends.

I hope all my other readers won't mind this small digression from the usual pots and pans.

I'm having fantasies of us playing this course together soon.

Happy birthday, Dad.


The Extreme 19th at Legend Golf & Safari Resort
Entabeni Safari Conservancy, Mookgophong, Waterberg Region
Lompopo, South Africa
+27 (0) 11 729 6700
for more Extreme 19th information click HERE

Jan 5, 2010

Befana in Italy

Tonight, while everyone is asleep, La Befana will be coming to our house and filling my son's stocking with little gifts and candy. He will find it tomorrow morning, like many other children in Italy. We will leave out a small glass of red wine and some soft breadcrumb for her to snack on (the Befana likes her vino, but her bad teeth can only tolerate softer foods). She is not scary–although her features are less than pretty–and kids love her. Unfortunately younger generations are starting to forget how important she really is.

The befana is not a witch, as she is often recently portrayed. She's an ugly, hunched-over old woman in a raggedy scarf that sometimes flies on a broomstick (or rides a donkey) and brings happiness to children. Before Santa dethroned her, overtaking the global commercialization of Christmas, in many parts of Italy it was only la Befana who brought gifts to children on the Twelfth Night, marking the end of the holiday season. December 25th was solemnly celebrated as the birth of Jesus, a big family reunion, and involved eating lots of good food–period. No gifts.

The name Befana is the corruption of the word epifania, Italian for 'Epiphany.' That's when, on January 6th, Christians commemorate the visitation of the Magi to the Baby Jesus.

The Befana is a pagan figure belonging to Roman folklore, but according to a more religious version, her story is linked to the Three Wise Men from the Orient.

On their way to Bethlehem to bring Baby Jesus their precious gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, Balthazar, Melchior and Caspar got lost on the way (winter clouds momentarily shrouding the comet?).

They happened upon an old woman standing in her cozy doorway, and asked her for directions. Despite the Magi's insistence she follow them to visit the Child, the woman peremptorily refused to accompany them. Later, feeling guilty for her harsh dismissal, the old woman prepared a jute sack filled with sweets and gifts for the Babe and set out to catch up to the Three Kings, unsuccessfully.

She stopped at every home on the way, dispensing her delicious bounty to the children she'd meet, in the hope that one of them was the newborn Jesus.

From that day, every year on the night before January 6th, she is said to roam the world, giving gifts to children, in exchange for forgiveness.

La Befana proverbially loads stockings with method: a fresh tangerine at the toe, and then pieces of unwrapped bubble gum, assorted candies, gianduiotti, lollipops, chocolate coins for prosperity, a few symbolic small toys and trinkets–like stickers or crayons–and whatever she feels is right for the child in question.

Those who haven't been good find their stocking filled only with coal, but that rarely happens! Just to keep the tradition alive, every stocking must contain at least one chunk of crumbly black sugar, shaped like a lump of coal.

One larger gift is displayed near the stocking, unwrapped and ready to be played with.

I've spoken to the Befana, and she tells me this year my son will be getting a brand new bicycle with training wheels!

Buona Befana!

Jan 1, 2010

A prayer for 2010

The new year begins.

I am borrowing the poem/prayer below and offering it to you as a sign of gratitude. As a gesture of love. As a symbol of where I am right now. My new year's resolution is to repeat this prayer and reap its deep beneficial effects. I hope you will too.

This is a perfect moment. It’s a perfect moment because I have been inspired to say a gigantic prayer. I’ve been roused to unleash a divinely greedy, apocalyptically healing prayer for each and every one of us—even those of us who ­don’t believe in the power of prayer.

And so I am starting to pray right now to the God of Gods, the God beyond all Gods... the Girlfriend of God... the Teacher of God... the Goddess who invented God.

DEAR GODDESS, you who always answer our very best questions, even if we ignore you:

Please be here with us right now. Come inside us with your sly slippery slaphappy mojo. Invade us with your silky succulent salty sweet haha.

Hear with our ears, Goddess. Breathe with our lungs. See through our eyes.

DEAR GODDESS, you who never kill but only change:

I pray that my exuberant, suave, and accidental words will move you to shower ferocious blessings down on everyone who reads or hears this benediction.

I pray that you will give us what we ­don’t even know we need—not just the boons we think we want, but everything we’ve always been afraid to even imagine or ask for.

DEAR GODDESS, you wealthy anarchist burning heaven to the ground:

Many of us don’t even know who we really are.

We’ve forgotten that our souls live forever.

We’re blind to the fact that every little move we make sends ripples through eternity. Some of us are even ignorant of how extravagant, relentless, and practical your love for us is.

Please wake us up to the shocking truths. Use your brash magic to help us see that we are completely different from we’ve been led to believe, and more exciting than we can possibly imagine.

Guide us to realize that we are all unwitting messiahs who are much too big and ancient to fit inside our personalities.

DEAR GODDESS, you sly universal virus with no fucking opinion:

Help us to be disciplined enough to go crazy in the name of creation, not destruction.

Teach us to know the distinction between oppressive self-­control and liberating self-control.

Awaken in us the power to do the half-­right thing when it is impossible to do the totally right thing.

And arouse the Wild Woman within us—even if we are men.

DEAR GODDESS, you who give us so much love and pain mixed together that our morality is always on the verge of collapsing:

I beg you to cast a boisterous love spell that will nullify all the dumb ideas, bad decisions, and nasty conditioning that have ever cursed all of us wise and sexy virtuosos.

Remove, banish, annihilate, and laugh into oblivion any jinx that has clung to us, no matter how long we have suffered from it, and even if we have become accustomed or addicted to its ugly companionship.

Conjure an aura of protection around us so that we will receive an early warning if we are ever about to act in such a way as to bring another hex or plague into our lives in the future.

DEAR GODDESS, you psychedelic mushroom cloud at the center of all our brains:

I pray that you will inspire us to kick our own asses with abandon and regularity.

Give us bigger, better, more original sins and wilder, wetter, more interesting problems.

Help us learn the difference between stupid suffering and smart suffering.

Provoke us to throw away or give away everything we own that encourages us to believe we’re better than anyone else.

Brainwash us with your compassion so that we never love our own freedom more than anyone else’s freedom.

And make it illegal, immoral, irrelevant, unpatriotic, and totally tasteless for us to be in love with anyone or anything that’s no good for us.

DEAR GODDESS, you riotously tender, hauntingly reassuring, orgiastically sacred feeling that is even now running through all of our soft, warm animal bodies:

I pray that you provide us with a license to bend and even break all rules, laws, and traditions that hinder us from loving the world the way you do.

Show us how to purge the wishy-­washy wishes that distract us from our daring, dramatic, divine desires.

And teach us that we can have anything we want if we will only ask for it in an unselfish way.

DEAR GODDESS, you who just pretend to be crazy so you can get away with doing what's right:

Help us to be like you—wildly disciplined, voraciously curious, exuberantly elegant, shockingly friendly, fanatically balanced, blasphemously reverent, mysteriously truthful, teasingly healing, lyrically logical, and blissfully rowdy.

And now dear God of Gods, God beyond all Gods, Girlfriend of God, Teacher of God, Goddess who invented God, I bring this prayer to a close, trusting that in these pregnant moments you have begun to change all of us in the exact way we needed to change in order to become the gorgeous geniuses we were born to be.






More power to you

Oh, but one more thing DEAR GODDESS, you pregnant slut who scorns all mediocre longing:

Please give us donkey clown piñatas full of chirping crickets,

ceramic spice jars containing 10 million-­year-old salt from the Himalayas,

gargoyle statues guaranteed to scare away the demons,

lucid dreams while we’re wide awake,

enough organic soup and ice cream to feed all the refugees,

emerald parachutes and purple velvet gloves and ladders made of melted-down guns,

a knack for avoiding other people’s personal hells,

radio-controlled, helium-filled flying rubber sharks to play with,

magic red slippers to contribute to the hopeless,

bathtubs full of holy water to wash away our greed,

secret admirers who are not psychotic stalkers,

mousse cakes baked in the shapes of giant question marks,

stories about lightning strikes that burn down towers where megalomaniacal kings live,

solar-powered sex toys that work even in the dark,

knowledge of secret underground rivers,

mirrors that the Dalai Lama has gazed into,

and red wagons carrying the treats we were deprived of in childhood.

~Rob Brezsny

Happy 2010!