Category Archives: Book review

the slow rise

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I keep writing good with pizza bianca, serve with pizza bianca, eat with pizza bianca in recipe notes for the book. Which is all very well for readers living in Rome, therefore within shouting distance of one of the countless forno daily paddling hot pizza bianca from the gaping mouths of ovens, brushing them with olive oil, strewing them with salt and then slicing them just for you. Less so, much less so, for everyone else. ‘You will just have to do a pizza bianca recipe for the book‘ said my Mum, who is here for the week and being the best baby sitter I could ask for. ‘But I can’t even make bread, never mind pizza bianca and while we’re at it, I can’t write a book, I can’t even write E mails and I hate my hair and all my clothes’  I said in a grown up way.

Then I read a recipe in a book I received for my birthday. A book about pizza by a maestro, the so-called Michelangelo of Pizza (although I don’t think he was the one who coined that immodest soubriquet, he prefers Re or king) a man of broad shoulders and impressive hands; Gabriele Bonci.

I can I told Laura as I paid for a bag of 0f Mulino Marino flour from her Emporio delle spezie. I can I told myself as I weighed out the ingredients. I can I muttered as I mixed the flour with the yeast, the salt, the water and then a dram of extra virgin olive oil. I can’t I thought as I surveyed the wet, sticky, mass clinging like particularly adhesive putty to my spoon, my fingers and the sides of my tin bowl. I covered it hastily with clean cloth for its first rising and took empty solace in social media.

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At which point Dan arrived. Dan is my all baking, beering friend who just happens to have done a Bonci pizza-making workshop. ‘It’s the 70% hydration, it should be sticky’ he explained in a bakers tone before tying on my apron and setting to work. It’s a properly sticky affair, you do this wonderful, gentle pull and fold motion, the Piegature di rinforzo which means folding to reinforce. By stretching and folding the dough gently, developing the gluten and incorporating air into it you render it altogether more manageable. The joy of watching.

The dough then sits in the bottom of the fridge, balanced on the vegetable box and beside the dubious bottle of dessert wine for 24 hours. It’s a slow, steady swell, a true lunga lievitazione that reminds you dough is a living thing. I kept peeping at my pale dejeuner sur l’herbe bottom-like dough all day. I woke up at 3 am sweating and fretting about the gas bill and other animals and was reassured by my ever-increasing bowlful. By (late) breakfast the next day, 23 hours after Dan’s Piegature di rinforzo my bowl was full.

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I’m not sure why handling freshly risen dough is so nice, but it is. The key is being as gentle as possible as you cut the mass into 350 g pieces (5), fold and shape them into a balls (and leave them to rest for another half hour.) Once rested you massage and very gently – this is all about the lightest, pattering touch –  press the dough into a tin-shaped form on an evenly floured surface before lifting this soft cloth-like rectangle into an oiled tin.

I particularly like Bonci’s note that in his experience the cheaper the tin the better it cooks. My tin is a bog standard 30 cm x 30 cm one with a thin base that I inherited with the flat. You pour a thin stream of olive oil over the surface of your dimpled dough.  You have preheated the oven to 250° or 480F.

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My Pizza took 25 minutes (15 on the floor of the oven then 10 on the middle shelf) until it had the requisite characteristics: a firm bottom, full-bodied, tender center punctuated with pockets of air and a burnished crust. I brushed the top with a little more olive and was generous with the salt. It was nearly as good as the pizza I’ve eaten standing on the pavement outside Bonci’s small but perfectly formed Pizzarium. Well. Nearly.

In a world where we are often told we don’t need to fold, or rise, or wait, that we can just fling things together in a jiffy and making too much of an effort is fussy, this way of making pizza might take you aback. It did me at least. But then it didn’t. It makes absolute sense that to make something so good from very basic ingredients – flour, water, yeast, oil and salt – you need something else, two things actually; not a little effort and time.

I am not sure there are many things tastier than freshly baked pizza bianca, warm, crisp at first but then giving way to a proper mouth arresting chew, oil and salt clinging your lips.  This is one of the best things I have ever made. The end. Or the beginning.

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Pizza bianca

I may have eaten more Pizza than is decent and watched it being made many times, but this is the first time I have made it at home. I am pretty damn happy with the results – horray for Gabriele Bonci and long slow rising. I hope I have made things clear below. Elizabeth’s blog post and video are very helpful. If you are serious about pizza, I recommend Bonci’s book, which is now available in English.

Makes 5 square pizza which each divides into four nice slices.

Adapted from Gabriels Bonci’s – Gioco della Pizza with help from Dan and Elizabeth Minchilli

  • 1 kg flour (Italian farina 0. Try hard to find this. Or strong white bread flour)
  • 10 g active dried yeast (Lievito di birra)
  • 7oo g water
  • 20 g salt
  • 40 g  extra virgin olive oil

You will need a standard, square or rectangular, thin based lipped tin /baking tray or pizza stone. I used a bog standard 30 cm x 30 cm lipped baking tray.

In a large bowl using a wooden spoon mix together the flour and the yeast. Then add the water, gradually, once it is incorporated add the salt and the oil. Mix until you have a pale, sticky, putty-like mixture. Cover with a clean cloth or cling-film and leave to rest for an hour at room temperature in draught-free part of the kitchen.

Scrape the mixture onto a lightly floured board. It will still be sticky. This stage is called the Piegature di rinforzo which means folding to reinforce. With lightly floured hands gently stretch and pull the edges of the dough and fold them back over themselves. Try as best as possible to turn the dough 90° (it will stick) by using a dough scape or spatula and repeat the pull and fold. With this repeated pulling and folding, the incorporation of air and the residual flour from your hands and the dough will get drier and become like a soft and manageable. Bonci suggest you repeat this pulling and folding motion three times, pause for 20 minutes, repeat, pause for 20 minutes and then repeat.

Put the soft dough into an oiled bowl and cover it (cloth or clingfilm) then leave it for 18 – 24 hours at the lower half of the fridge.

You pull the bowl from the fridge and leave it to it for 10 minutes. Carefully lift the dough from the bowl and cut it into 5 pieces of more or less 350 g – you can use a scale. Working piece by piece, shape the dough into a ball, fold it over once as you did for the Piegature di rinforzo and leave it to sit for another 30 minutes at room tempertaure away from draughts. Set the oven to 250°c/ 480F.

The final stage needs to be done with a delicate touch – you don’t want to squash out the air you have so patiently incorporated. On an evenly floured board, using your finger tips and starting from the borders and then working up the center of the dough, push and massage it into a square the size of the tin. Once it is more or less the right size, drape it over your arm and then lift it into a the well oiled 30 cm x 30 cm lipped tin /baking tray or pizza sheet. Zig-zag the dough with a thin stream of olive oil.

Bake on the floor of the oven for 15 minutes, check the pizza by lifting up the corner and looking underneath – it should be firm and golden. If it seems nearly done, move it to the middle shelf of the oven for 10 more minutes. Pull from the oven. Brush with more olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Slice and eat.

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Filed under Book review, bread and pizza, fanfare, food, grains, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, Roman food

Plan for a flan

As a rule I like my spinach served simply. That is: washed and then cooked in a heavy pan under an equally heavy lid with nothing more than the water that still clings to its crinkled leaves, drained (well,) cooled (slightly) and served just warm on a white plate. I’ll dress it myself if you don’t mind, with extra virgin olive oil, coarse salt and a squeeze of lemon.

The dapper Signore sitting at the other end of our long table in the trattoria Sostanza likes his spinach this way too. Having finished his bistecca alla fiorentina he turned his attention to the small, oval dish of dark-green leaves, dressing them as stylishly as he had himself that morning – scatter, drip, flick, squeeze, twist. Then – having adjusted his napkin and sipped his red wine – he took his fork in one hand and a nub of bread in the other and ate his green mound.  As his plates were lifted away our elegant table companion caught the waiters eye, murmured il solito (the usual) and seconds later was presented with five almond cantuccini and a small glass of vin santo. He ate and sipped and ate and sipped. Then, fingers dusted, mouth dapped and napkin folded, il signore made his way to the marble counter, exchanged intimate words with both waiters, paid, raised his hand to the kitchen and left leaving domani (tomorrow) echoing around the small white-tiled trattoria.

It was during that same stay in Florence that I came across a book containing a spinach recipe enticing enough to make another exception to the rule. Luca and I were visiting my London friends Kitty, Cicely and Laura who were staying just outside the city. Lunch at Trattoria Sostanza – a clatter of plates to share: Sopressata, tortellini in brodo, penne al ragu, bistecca alla fiorentina, pollo al burro, tartino di carciofi, bollito with salsa verde, stracotto di manzo, porcini and copious red wine – followed by gelato had left us jocund and well sated. We really didn’t need any supper.

No supper that is, apart from the globe artichokes Laura simmered in a lemon scented bouillon, the arcs of fennel, curls of radicchio, new season olive oil, slices of glistening lardo on toast and squares of Kitty’s walnut studded Castagnaccio. We ate, drank vino novello and talked about food, tights and other people’s business. Then something in the conversation prompted Laura to pull a book from the shelf.

Now this is probably going to seem contradictory considering what I do and write here, but I have an odd relationship with recipe and food books these days, finding that most of them – however beautifully composed, photographed and styled – leave me both over and underwhelmed, stuffed, starved and strangely uninspired. That said – as with spinach – there are exceptions.

One such exception is the red book pulled from the shelf. A book I now possess. A book called Beaneaters and bread soup written by Laura’s friends (and employers at the Towpath in London) food writer Lori di Mori and photographer Jason Lowe. The book is a collection of evocatively written portraits of Tuscan food producers and craftsman whose work relates to the culinary arts, including a beekeeper, a shepherd and cheesemaker, a tripe vendor, a knife maker, a cook, a winemaker, a coffee roaster and a Lardo di Colonnata producer. Each portrait is followed by several appropriate recipes. The writing is exquisite and compelling, the photography stunning but utterly unpretentious and the food producers inspiring. I’ve decided I want to keep bees. And then there are the recipes: bean and bread soups aplenty, braises, intriguing pasta, plump grains, game, dark green vegetables, marvels with chestnuts, figs, apricots, almonds, chocolate and of course lashings of Tuscan extra virgin olive oil. I want to make everything.

Lately I’ve become a little obsessed with boiled beef so I began with the bollito di manzo. I served it, as suggested with mayonnaise and salsa verde! It was the best I’ve ever made! At least I think it was, I’d consumed rather a lot of red wine so it’s possible my judgement was impaired. It was also far too dark to even consider taking pictures. I plan to make it again next week. I’ve also made the olive oil cake and the sformato di spinaci or spinach flan.

Actually this is my third in 10 days. It’s quite simply brilliant and delicious. How to describe it? Well, it’s a sort of superlative constructed creamed spinach. Or you could describe it as bed whose base is crisp breadcrumbs, whose mattress is a plump spinach soufflé and whose cover is a soft, warm, quivering blanket of béchamel. Does that make any sense?  Maybe it’s best I explain how you make it.

First you make your béchamel: A good pan with a heavy base is important, remember the butter and flour roux should cook until thick without turning brown! Also keep whisking and whisking. Then while your béchamel is cooling you cook the spinach as usual – that is in heavy pan under a heavy lid with only the washing water still clinging to the leaves – until completely wilted. Once the spinach is cool enough, you squeeze out the access water, chop it coarsely and then mix it with 3 egg yolks, freshly grated parmesan, a dollop of the bechamel and season with salt and pepper before folding in the egg whites you have patiently mounted.

Now the layers. First the butter, smeared generously on the base and sides of your baking tin. Then a layer of fine breadcrumbs scattered on the butter. Next a layer of spinach on the breadcrumbs and after that a (glorious) layer of béchamel. To finish, a shower of grated parmesan. The flan needs about 25 minutes in the oven. It then needs – as so many dishes do – a rest, lets say 15 minutes, so the flavors can settle, the crumbs tighten, the egg-bound-spinach firm slightly and the bechamel settle into a soft but significant layer.

And to drink, the end of a very nice bottle of Isole e Olena Chianti.

The first of my three flans was made for an unpredictable supper with my parents two weeks ago. I prepared the flan in the afternoon. Then once I’d heard the plane had landed I slid the pale, slightly wobbly tinful into the oven and opened the wine. The airport pantomime and train journey from the airport to my flat took longer than expected, meaning the flan sat on top of the (still slightly warm) stove for 40 minutes and I drank rather too much of the wine. I considered warming the flan again, but I’m glad I didn’t as it was a just right and a pretty perfect supper with a fennel salad. Last thing – I am going to sing the praises of my enamel baking tin once again, it is the best kitchen purchase I have made in a long time. Romans we have Emanuela. Otherwise here.

Sformato di spinaci Spinach flan

Serves 4 (6 at a push but who the heck wants to push) as a main course.

Adapted from  a recipe in Beaneaters and breadsoup by Lori di Mori and Jason Lowe

  • 1.5 kg spinach
  • 3 large eggs
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 50 g parmesan
  • nutmeg
  • 1 litre / 2 pints whole milk
  • bay leaf
  • 80 g butter plus more for smearing the dish
  • 80 g plain flour
  • fine breadcrumbs for dusting the tin.

Set the oven to 180°

Make the béchamel. In small pan heat the milk and bay leaf until it almost reaches boiling point. Remove the milk from the heat and then leave to sit for 5 minutes. Heat the butter in a heavy based pan; as soon as it starts to foam, whisk in the flour. Keep whisking steadily for 2 minutes, then remove the pan from the heat. Add a little of the milk and whisk until you have a smooth paste. Return the pan to the heat and then add the rest of the milk, whisking continuously until the milk boils. Season with salt and black pepper. Lower the heat and simmer, stirring and whisking frequently for about 10 minutes or until the sauce is thick. Allow the sauce to sit for 10 minutes.

Pick over the spinach, discarding withered or discoloured leaves and particularly tough stalks. Wash it in several changes of cold water. Stuff the spinach in a large pan with no extra water (enough will be clinging to the leaves to stop it burning until the leaves start giving out their juice.) Put a heavy lid on the pan and then stand over a low/moderate flame. After about five minutes, give the leaves a prod and a stir. Raise the heat so the spinach cooks more rapidly. Continue cooking until the spinach has collapsed and is tender. This should take about 5 minutes depending on the freshness and age of the spinach.

Drain the spinach and once it is cool enough squeeze and press it gently with your hands to eliminate as much water as possible.

Put the spinach in a large bowl and then chop it roughly with scissors. In a small bowl beat the three egg yolks lightly with a fork and then stir them into the spinach. Add 30 g of parmesan, 3 tablespoons of béchamel, salt, freshly ground black pepper and a good grating of nutmeg. In a clean dry bowl whisk the egg whites until stiff peaks form. Gently fold the egg whites into the spinach mixture.

Smear your (23 x 30cm) baking tin generously with butter and then dust it with fine breadcrumbs. Spread the spinach mixture evenly over the breadcrumbs. Pour the béchamel evenly over the spinach. Scatter the remaining parmesan on top of the béchamel.

Bake for 25 minutes or until the sauce is bubbling and the cheese golden. Let the flan rest for at least 15 minutes and up to an hour before serving.

Update – there have been a couple of helpful comments about the quantity of béchamel. There is a lot – 1 litre - which I think works with a large tin. I suggest you pour the béchamel cautiously, and don’t use it all if your dish is smaller or you feel it might be too much. Also the béchamel should be thick (but not stiff) and coating the back of a spoon (you know the way) so make sure you cook it enough.

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Filed under Book review, books, Eggs, flans, food, rachel eats Italy, Rachel's Diary, spinach

Just right.

Things have shifted. I’m not talking about the big things, even though they too seem to be shuffling, extremely slowly into a different, more comfortable sort of order. I’m talking about the little things, the everyday things: the daily routine with my little boy, the state of my flat, my waxing and plucking (it was out of control) my writing here, my reading, my teaching and life in my small, oddly shaped Roman kitchen.

Unexpectedly, after a period of swatting days and meals away like flies and after a summer of feeling cross and impatient with my kitchen, my food and myself, I seem to have found a new rhythm. A nice, uncharacteristically steady (and slightly jaunty) rhythm.  I’m also managing better: the shopping, the fridge, the planning of meals, the process of cooking itself. I’ve stopped worrying about making something clever and out of character to write about here and focused instead on what suits me (and Luca) now, in September, in Rome. I’ve returned to habits that had slipped away, making do, making stock, making double, making triple (tomato sauce), of soaking beans, big bags of them, which means the base and a head start of two, three, maybe even four meals. I’ve been – for once – using my loaf.

So with another wedge of three-day-old-bread on the counter, ricotta salata in the fridge, tomato season sprinting to the finish line and with me bobbing along to this new, unexpected rhythm, there was no debate. No debate as to which recipe to make from Luisa’s book, the first book I have properly buried my head in and inhaled since Luca was born a year ago. It would be Tomato Bread Soup.

But before I talk about Luisa’s Tomato bread soup and the moment ‘When the bread cubes hit the silky tomatoes, they go all custardy and soft’  I’d like to talk a little about her book, a memoir with recipes, My Berlin Kitchen.

Having followed her blog The Wednesday Chef for five years, I already knew Luisa was a gifted writer and storyteller, that she was a skilled and engaging recipe writer – she was of course a cookbook editor. I also knew she was charming, funny and generous – she was one of the first to give my blog a deep nod of approval. I had high hopes and hefty expectations. I was even a little nervous as I ripped open the grey bag from Viking press, smoothed the slightly matt cover, admired the boots and thought ‘I’ve got a bag like that‘ and opened the first inky smelling page.

It’s delicious. It’s a beautiful and intelligently written account of a young woman’s life so far. A life that weaves and navigates its way between three cultures: German, American and Italian. A life in which this necessary but often baffling weaving is understood and managed through food, through nourishing others and being nourished. It’s evocative writing that seizes all your senses: taste, smell, touch, sound and sight, but writing that manages to remain as sharp as a redcurrant, pertinent and never cloying. I particularly liked reading about Luisa’s early childhood in West Berlin in the late 1970′s. Fascinating stuff, especially when Luisa teetered on the edge of something much darker. I’d like to learn more. I loved reading about Luisa’s Italian family and her food education, an enlightenment of sorts, a process that resonated strongly with me and my own experiences here in Italy. I’m itching to visit Berlin now, next spring I think. I’ll hire a bike and pedal my way around the city before finding myself some pickled herrings, potato salad and plum-cake.

Then there are the recipes, of which there are more than 44, fitting neatly and beautifully into the narrative. Which of course is the point, a memoir with food! Food and recipes that help you understand and taste a life. Terrific stuff. And so to the recipe I had no difficulty in choosing, an Italian one on page 82, one of the simplest, one of Luisa’s favorites and one of mine too: Tomato and Bread Soup or Pappa al pomodoro.

Pappa means , quite literally, mush and pomodoro, as you know, tomato. Mush of tomatoes. Stay with me. Pappa al pomodoro is classic Italian comfort food, born out of necessity, thrift and good taste. Excellent tomatoes are cooked with a fearless quantity of extra virgin olive oil,  plump garlic and a hefty pinch of salt until they are soft and pulpy. Cubed stale bread from a coarse country loaf is then added to the pan and everything cooked for another 10 minutes. This is moment Luisa captures so well, the moment when ‘When the bread cubes hit the silky tomatoes, they go all custardy and soft.’  The pan is then left to cool – as we know good things come to those who wait – and the flavors mellow. The Pappa al pomodoro is then served with grated ricotta salata and torn basil. Delicious and exquisite, a little like Luisa and her book which was released this week. Thank you for sending me a copy Vikings and tanti auguri to you Luisa.

Now I would happily eat pappa al pomodoro twice a week, every week, especially if every now and then it was topped with a lacy edged fried egg or quivering poached one. I can’t of course, eat it every week, what with it being such a strictly seasonal panful. Of course it’s this seasonality that makes Pappa al pomodoro even more of a pleasure, a treat.  Make it now while tomaotes are still in fine form.

Luca has never eaten so much lunch in his year-long life. Viva la pappa (thanks Jo.)

Tomato and bread soup Pappa al pomodoro

From My Berlin Kitchen by Luisa Weiss

Serves 2 hungry people. It could serve 4 at a push but who wants to push!

  • 3 llbs / 1.5 kg fresh, ripe plum tomatoes
  • 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 small onion minced
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 cups cubed, crustless sourdough or peasant bread
  • 1/2 cup grated ricotta salata
  • 1 tbsp minced fresh basil leaves

Core and quarter the plum tomatoes. Place the tomatoes and their juices in a food processor and pulse a few times to chop them coarsely, you don’t want tomato puree.

Heat the oil in a 4-quart / 4 litre saucepan. Add the onion and garlic and sauté until soft but not browned, Add the tomatoes and their juices. season with salt and pepper, bring to a slow simmer, and cook for 45 minutes, covered, stirring from time to time.

When the soup has simmered for 45 minute, add the cubed bread and simmer for another 10 minutes, Check seasoning and discard the garlic.

Serve slightly cooled or at room temperature, with grated ricotta salata and minced basil strewn over each serving.

My notes.

I didn’t measure my oil but it was a mighty glug, I’d say about 5 tbsp. My tomatoes, a variety called Piccadilly had particularly thick skins so I peeled them. I don’t have a food processor so I chopped the tomatoes roughly by hand which seemed to work pretty well. I didn’t add onion. I left the garlic in the soup until I served it. My soup was fanatically thick by the end of cooking so I added a little water to loosen everything. I forgot the basil, there was something missing.

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Filed under Book review, books, bread, food, soup, summer food, The Wednesday Chef, tomatoes, vegetables