Category Archives: Roman food

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Three pairs of tights and two books. I can remember exactly what I bought, because I then left the whole lot under the seat on the train I took from Kings Cross station to Harpenden. Two penguin novels and three pairs of Wolford tights that cost an arm and a leg. I realized my hands felt empty as, standing on the platform, I watched the tail of the train disappear into the dark distance on its way to the next station. I stood for quite some time on the cold platform, my breath white, feeling bereft and furious with myself. Of course the ticket office was closed and anyone who could help long gone. Back at my parents, a recorded message informed me that the lost property office was closed until nine o clock on monday, by which time I would be back in Rome, without any Wolfords. I just hoped whoever found the bag appreciated they had found sixty flipping pounds worth of tights that, if washed by hand, would retain their shape and make legs look good for years to come.

I’d bought both books and tights from Selfridges on Oxford street. It must have been late 2006 because I’d been living in Rome about a year and a half and was just about able to distinguish the roman intonation of the assistant helping me choose between matt opaque and silky effect. In between discussions about investing in good quality tights and stomach support, we talked about her home town and my new home, Rome. Quickly the discussion turned to food, or rather the assistants longing for a suppli and plate of cacio e pepe from Felice on via Mastro Giorgio in Testaccio. Via Mastro Giorgio was where I lived I told her, three buildings up from Felice. By the time we reached the cash desk, the helpful but initially cool assistant almost had her arm around me, a gesture which seemed to sum up so much about Romans and their relationship with Roman food. As she put the tights in the bag, she asked me to eat a plate of cacio e pepe from Felice for her.

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Cacio e pepe, cheese and pepper, is one of Rome’s iconic primi piatti, a pasta dish that sums up the simple, thrifty brilliance of the city’s traditional cooking. Pasta tossed vigorously with grated pecorino romano cheese, black pepper, pasta cooking water and possibly olive oil until the ingredients come together into a pale creamy sauce flecked with black that clings seductively to the pasta. Simple yet disconcertingly difficult to get right – there is a fine line between clump and cream – but utterly delicious when you do.

Like most Roman dishes, opinions and about how to make cacio e pepe are strongly held, the addition of olive oil being a particularly contentious point. There is also a very good chance whoever you are talking to, their mother, their grandmother, or their brother makes the definitive cacio e pepe. Feelings are just as strongly held about where good cacio e pepe is served. The girl who helped me choose tights and my wise friend Laura think trattoria Felice makes a fine plateful. My neighbours don’t agree. Their favorite, after their own, is to be found at the trattoria with frosted glass windows on via Marmorata, Perilli. ‘Perilli oh no‘ howled another friend in disagreement! ‘Go to Flavio Al Velavevodetto for cacio e pepe‘.

Cacio e pepe advice has been particularly plentiful for us, living as we do, in the heart of opinionated Testaccio just three doors down from Felice, a corner away from Perilli, 200 metres from Flavio, two corners from Agustarello and three from La Torricella. In short, bang in the middle of a cluster of historic Roman trattorie all serving up opinion stirring cacio e pepe with opinion stirring service. We tried them all, and slowly I began to get a sense of cacio e pepe. Over time I realised I favour long pasta coated with enough creamy sauce to allow the strands to twirl easily around the fork and tongue, just enough freshly cracked pepper to catch the back of your throat and extra pecorino dusted on top. These days I tend to avoid Felice, the cacio e pepe may be good, the service less so. I have soft spot for the cacio e pepe at Flavio and Agustarello (even though Sandro can be a tricky.) Leaving the confines of my cheese shaped quarter I also really like cacio e pepe (and the service that accompanies it) at Cesare al Casaletto and Armando al Pantheon.

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Eating out is all very well, however most of the time we eat in, so I wanted to make my own cacio e pepe, which proved much harder than I imagined. You need a teacher Vincenzo said, a good one.

So a week last Tuesday, I stood in my small kitchen with my roman friend Paola, who happens to be a chef, and she showed me how she makes cacio e pepe. First she laid out the equipment: a large bowl, a metal fork , a ladle, a small frying pan, pestle and mortar and a large pan for cooking the pasta. Next the ingredients. ‘The black pepper is vital‘ Paola said holding out a handful of Sarawak black peppercorns bought from the Emporio delle spezie almost underneath my flat. ‘Eat one‘ she urged. So I did, a whole peppercorn popped in my mouth like a sweet. Once bitten it was softly fragrant and almost tea-like until the spicy heat hit the back of the mouth and a fragment got caught in a molar. For pasta, Paola had chosen a long dried pasta made in a small independent pastificio (dried pasta maker) called Lagano here in Rome. Last but not least, there was the pecorino romano from Antica Caciara in Trastevere, which was exactly how you hope it would be, creamy, muttony and a bit impertinent.

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I have always enjoyed watching other people cook, especially those who are confident but gentle about the way they do things. Paola toasted the peppercorns in an iron pan until their fragrance opened up and swirled into the kitchen. Then she crushed them into speckled powder by hand in my make shift bowl/rolling-pin pestle and mortar, which she noted worked extremely well.  While the Pasta cooked in well-salted fast-boiling water she grated the pecorino into a soft, pale mound that just begged to be pinched. Once the pasta was about half way there, she ladled a surprisingly generous amount of pasta cooking water, by now cloudy and slightly thick with starch, into the large bowl. To the water she added a golden glug of good olive oil and then whisked the two together quickly with the fork. ‘It needs to cool a little’ she noted. ‘Or it will make the cheese seize and clump.’ Once the pasta was ready, she lifted it into the water and oil mixture. Then came movement: with one hand Paola began a firm beating/swirling movement with the fork, with the other she added the cheese, handful by handful, followed by a generous amount of pepper. The vigorous beating continued for at least a minute, the strands of pasta, pasta cooking water, cheese and pepper swirling, around the bowl until they all came together, emulsified into a sauce. Plates, piles of pasta, a little more pepper, a tavola!

The sun streamed and the noise of the traffic and kids piling out of the nearby school crept through the window into my small kitchen as we sat at the kitchen table eating cacio e pepe. We talked about Rome and roman food and how with dishes like this it is all about practice, about trying, possibly failing and trying again in order to discover how much pasta cooking water, how much cheese and pepper, how vigorous is vigorous. In short, finding your way of doing things. Paola was keen to remind me this was her way of making cacio e pepe, that she toasts her peppercorns while others don’t, that she adds olive oil while others don’t, that she mixes in a bowl while others prefer a pan, that she likes dried pasta while others favour fresh. In short, Paola, like the seven generations of her Roman family before her, has found a way that works for her. It was absolutely delicious.

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Paola’s cacio e pepe

I needed to fail at making Cacio e pepe in order to succeed – seeing how the cheese can clump and harden into strings (which is usually because the pasta or cooking water is too hot) allowed me to find a smoother way. Since our lesson I have tried this recipe three times with fine results.  You really do need to beat and toss the cheese, pasta and pasta water together boldly – think of the movement as a combination of whisking egg and and tossing salad – for quite some time – it took a good minute the other day. Don’t be put off  if you see a clump: keep on, adding a little more pasta cooking water and cheese and mixing as if your life, or rather your supper depends on it. You can of course try without olive oil.

  • 100 g long dried or 130 g fresh egg pasta per person (Tonnarelli is a favorite in Rome)
  • 40 g finely and freshly grated pecorino romano cheese per person
  • 2 tablespoons good extra virgin olive oil (optional)
  • good quality, whole black peppercorns
  • coarse salt

a large pan, a large bowl, a grater (I like my microplane), a large fork, a ladle.

Bring a large pan of well-salted water (10 g of coarse/kosher salt for every litre) to the boil.

Meanwhile toast the peppercorn gently in a small frying pan until the fragrance and essential oils open up. Crush the toasted peppercorns in a pestle and mortar. Grate the cheese, finely, onto a plate.

Once the water is boiling, added the pasta and make sure it is submerged. Check the pasta cooking time and the clock. Once the pasta is half-cooked lift a ladleful of pasta cooking water into the bowl, add two tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil and whisk the two together vigorously.

Once the pasta is a minute off its cooking time, lift it into the bowl, ideally using tongs or a sieve. Swirl the pasta in the water and oil. Now using one hand to beat the pasta with the fork, use the other to start adding the cheese, handful by handful. Keep beating and swirling the pasta with the cheese until you see a cream starting to form. Once the cheese is all added, add a teaspoon of the crushed pepper. Keep beating. Add a little more pasta cooking water if necessary. Divide between plates, top with another pinch of pepper, a dusting of cheese and eat.

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Filed under cheese, cucina romana, Da Cesare al Casaletto, Eating In Testaccio, food, fresh egg pasta, pasta and rice, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, Roman food, Testaccio

of course you can

This article was originally written for Guardian Cook and published on Friday 31st October 2014.

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It wasn’t exactly a tut, more a click of the tongue. I heard it after I asked my Roman butcher if he would put a sausage through the mincer with the beef as I was making meatballs. I know the sound well. It means no. My Sicilian partner Vincenzo makes it so often it has been demoted from irritating to ordinary. As the mincer growled like a dog with indigestion, I turned to see where the tut had come from, and found a signora in her late sixties wearing a purple cardigan, now looking at me shaking her head. ‘Non si mette la salsiccia nelle polpette cara’ ‘You don’t put sausage in meatballs, dear.’

A few years earlier this would have made me upset, or cross and then frustrated as I searched for the words in Italian to defend myself and my sausage. These days I am used to impertinent opinions about food, I even like them, and was just about to voice my own opinion when another, much older woman, did it for me. ‘Certo, puoi mettere le salsicce nelle polpette cara’.’ ‘Of course you can put sausage in meatballs, dear’ She said this turning to the butcher who was wrapping the meat in red and white paper, and then to the couple behind her, herding people into the discussion at just after nine on a Tuesday morning in front of a butcher’s stall on Testaccio market.

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When you ask an Italian about meatballs, or they are simply offering you an opinion, one thing is (almost always) certain; that their mother, their grandmother, their aunt or their great aunt made the best polpette. Beyond that, there will be some idiosyncratic opinion as to how exactly they should be made, or cooked, or eaten. In Vincenzo’s family it was Nonna Sara who made the best polpette in tomato sauce in the village, a fact no doubt helped by the fact she was the wife of a tomato farmer. The whole family knows the recipe well; ground beef, bread soaked in milk, grated pecorino, chopped parsley and an egg, moulded, rested, fried and then poached in lots of tomato sauce,

Nobody though, even uncle Liborio who is a chef, is able to make them like taste quite like the polpette Sara made when they were growing up. Which makes sense! Can we ever truly replicate the tastes of our childhood? Making Nonna’s meatballs is just like me trying to re-create my grandma’s Lancashire tattie hash. I come extremely close, but can never truly recreate it, because I can never re-create the comforting, steamy atmosphere of my grandparents living room on a Tuesday night eating tea while watching Johns Craven’s news round.

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Back to the meatballs. Having settled upon your ingredients, which in my case are ground beef, the controversial sausage or ground pork, bread soaked in milk (essential addition I think, a giving a nice bready plumpness) parsley, mint (if I have it), a flick of nutmeg, parmesan or pecorino, salt (steady if you have added a seasoned sausage), pepper and a whole egg. Resting the just moulded meatballs is advisable, because, as my friend Carla puts it, it lets the flavours settle down and balls firm up.

Now, how to cook. Traditionally meatballs are fried before uniting them with the sauce. This creates rich, slightly caramelised juices. However some of the best, most tender meatballs I have eaten have been poached directly in the sauce. After taking and trying out plenty of advice, I now generally bake my meatballs briefly in the oven, which I find a comfortable halfway house between frying and poaching. I am sure the signora in the purple cardigan would have something to say about this. Once baked, I tip them and any juices collected at the bottom of the tin, into a generous quantity of tomato sauce. Once in the sauce, I poach the meatballs for 20 minutes or so.

Finally, how to serve them? The answer is, however you want. I’ve adopted the Roman habit of serving the sauce with pasta, and then meatballs separately as a second course or, in keeping with my cook once eat twice philosophy, a separate meal. In Rome you will notice that many braised meat dishes; ox tail stew, beef rolls, pork ribs and meatballs are all served this way. So on first day we eat some of the plentiful sauce, by now deep rusty red and richly flavored, with spaghetti or penne pasta. I sometimes find – as do several Italians I know – that a single meatball finds its way onto my plate waiting to be mashed into the pasta and sauce. The next day I serve the meatballs themselves – even tastier having had a good nights rest in the remaining sauce – just so, or with bread, rice, cous cous or best of all, buttery mashed potato.

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Week 2 – meatballs in tomato sauce to serve two ways

These really are guidelines as how to make, cook and eat meatballs. Feel free to adapt, experiment and take liberties, after all this is your supper.

  • 60 g decent bread without crusts, ideally a day old, better still, two
  • 60 ml whole milk
  • 400 g minced beef
  • 200 g minced pork or a fat sausage
  • 1 egg
  • 30 g grated Parmesan
  • a grating of nutmeg
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley and (optional) mint
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 small onion
  • 1 garlic clove
  • a pinch of dried chilli
  • 6 tablespoons olive oil
  • 750 g fresh tomatoes
  • 3 x 400-g tins plum tomatoes, chopped
  • salt and pepper

Put the bread in a small bowl with the milk and leave it for 10 minutes, or until the bread absorbs the milk and break easily into plump crumbs. Mix together all the ingredients for the meatballs and season with salt and pepper. Using your hands, mould them into roughly 35-g balls. Put the balls on a baking tray and let them rest while you make the sauce.

Peel and finely chop the onion and garlic and roughly chop the fresh tomatoes, Warm the olive oil a large deep frying pan and then gently cook the onion, garlic and chilli for about 15 minutes or until they soft and fragrant, but not coloured. Add the fresh tomatoes and cook for a further 10 minutes. Add the chopped tinned tomatoes, bring to a lively simmer and then reduce to a gentle one for about 45 minutes. Stir occasionally and press the tomatoes with the back of a wooden spoon to break them up.

Meanwhile preheat the oven to 220°C/200°C fan/gas mark 8 and once hot bake the meatballs for 15 minutes, turning them once, until they are just starting to brown.

After 45 minutes, by which point the sauce should be thickish and rich. You can at this point pass the sauce through a food mill or blast it with an immersion blender for a smoother consistency. Or you can simply add the meatballs and poach them in the sauce for a further 15 minutes. Allow the meatballs and sauce to sit for at least 30 minutes before serving.

First meal

Cook 400 g of pasta in plenty of well-salted fast boiling water. Put a little of the sauce in the bottom of a warm serving bowl, add the drained pasta, some more sauce and stir. Divide between four bowls and top with a single meatball (if you wish) and pass a bowl of grated parmesan around.

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Second meal

Boil and mash a kilo of potatoes with plenty of butter and a little warm milk, season well with salt and plenty of black pepper. Gently re-heat the meatballs in their remaining sauce and serve with a good dollop of mash. Rice and cous cous also work well.

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Link to the Guardian article

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Filed under beef, food, parmesan cheese, pasta and rice, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, Roman food, supper dishes

the same thing

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In the early 1980’s my grandparents decided to move from the North to the South of England. I loved Phyllis and John and was extremely happy – as we all were – that they were coming to live nearby. At the same time I felt real anxiety about my gentle Lancastrian grandpa and Yorkshire grandma moving from the reliable North Yorkshire market town they had lived in for 25 years, to our commuter town just North of London.

I remember the day they arrived for good, their mustard coloured car reversing up the drive, John in a tweed cap and driving gloves, the arm of his glasses dangling from his mouth, Phyllis hugging her handbag. Somewhere in the car there would have been a thermos flask, in it an inch of tea.

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I needn’t have worried, in no time they had established where to buy the cheapest petrol, Yorkshire tea, joined the library, several local associations and were on discussing-hiatus-hernia-terms with various neighbours over tea and fig rolls. They had also begun picking up my brother, sister and I from school once a week and then taking us to their garden flat where they would to give us tea then supervise homework until my Dad picked us up on the way home from work.

Running from Grandpa’s car up the garden path the smell of tea would greet us long before my grandma did at the front door. It was almost always the same: potatoes, carrots, onions and corned beef simmered into a stew called tattie hash which we would eat with buttered bread watching John Craven’s Newsround as the living room windows and my grandma’s specs steamed up in a comforting-claustrophobic way. My grandma would save a portion for my dad and it would sit, sweating under a plate hat, while we did our homework. When dad arrived he would balance his plate on his knee and watch the 7 o clock news. While he ate, my grandma would fuss, and Dad would tell her not to, even though I think he liked that she did.

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We loved all tattie hash as much as we loved our grandparents, and so when a school friend back for tea was rude about it, I was furious. As far as I was concerned it was beyond any sort of judgment, even less criticism. Tattie hash was like my grandma; comforting, straightforward, generous, warm and (most importantly) something you could count on.  It was also to be finished if you were to have pudding, which was mostly rice pudding or tinned peaches with evaporated milk, the fruit syrup curdling the milk, which sounds unsavory but isn’t. Or is it? Again, it was beyond criticism.

But then I did criticize. I was about 12 and in horrid mood the day I told my grandma that tattie hash was sloppy and boring, that only old people ate the same thing again and again. I wanted to take back the words as soon as they came out and I watched the hurt shoot across my grandma’s forehead like a crack. A few years earlier she would have said something sharp back, but not then. I said sorry many times, but it never felt enough.

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I still wish I could take the words back. While I was at it, I would also thank her for all the buttons sewn back on, holes in the elbows of jumpers darned, holes in knees plastered, purple fruit pastils saved and tell them both how important tattie hash Tuesdays were, those comforting-claustrophobic evenings in the maisonette flat on Cowper road. I would also tell them that after years of kicking against any sort of routine, I now like nothing more than making the same thing again and again; pasta and tomato sauce mondays, roast chicken tuesdays (which means chicken soup wednesdays). Pasta e fagioli Fridays.

Pasta and beans! Well that does sound exotic’  Phyllis might have said if she were still here.

That would give me heart burn‘ my grandpa might have said from the sofa (everything gave him heartburn).

Oh John, do give over! Pasta and beans sounds lovely Rach. Now lets have a cup of tea and you can tell me more about the part of Rome you live in, Testicles is it?’

‘Testaccio grandma, it’s called Testaccio. Well there is a market you would love and……’

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Pasta e fagioli too, is comforting, straightforward, generous, warm and (most importantly) food to be counted on. Which is why is I have written about it twice and mentioned it countless times here. This version is for fresh borlotti and fresh pasta and is one of my favorite things to eat.

Pasta e fagioli

400 g fresh borlotti beans (this about a kilo of beans in their pods)
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic
a sprig of fresh rosemary
500 g fresh tomatoes.
salt and pepper
300 g fresh egg pasta

Cover the beans with enough cold water that it comes at least 2 inches above the beans. Bring to a very gentle boil and then reduce to a simmer for 30 mins for until the beans are tender but still firm.

Meanwhile in a large, deep saute pan or casserole, warm the olive oil over a low flame, add the peeled and gently crushed garlic cloves and rosemary and fry them gently until fragrant. Peel and roughly chop the tomatoes and add them to the pan, raise the flame just a little and cook the tomatoes for ten minutes until soft and saucy. Add beans and a ladleful of bean cooking water then let the pan bubble away for another 10 minutes. Season with salt generously.

Add another couple of ladleful of bean cooking water and then the pasta. Continue cooking, stirring pretty attentively until the pasta is tender. You may well need to add a little more water. Serve immediately and eat.

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Talking of Phyllis and John I wonder what they would have had to say about the cover of the book. Plenty, I imagine. It is – as you can see – a picture of my kitchen sink, a large quantity of apricots from my friend Jeannie’s tree, a scrubbing brush, a bottle opener, a bottle of limonata and a jam jar of parsley. Oh and a roll of kitchen towel, an enormous, useful thing that if I had thought twice about the picture, I might have moved. I am glad I didn’t. We looked at dozens of my pictures but this was the one –  snapped as I cooked one day – that we kept coming back to. Now cover chosen, writing done and pictures taken (all the food shots are mine taken in real time meaning meal time/ the beautiful and honest shots of Testaccio taken by brilliant Nick Seaton) the book just needs putting together. I say just! The publishing date in The UK is June next year but you can pre-order if you wish. The book will be published in the US in early 2016. Meanwhile I am looking forward to being back here a lot more.- R

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Filed under Beans and pulses, books, Rachel's Diary, Roman food, winter recipes

what remains

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One morning at about 9 it crossed my mind that I might actually live at the noisiest point on one of the noisiest streets in Rome. A queue of morning traffic, engines low but persistent, crawled along via Galvani, horns sounding indignantly at roadworks, traffic lights and i motorini who seemed to taunt the crawl with their cheeky weaving. A fire engine, siren waling, burst from the station on the corner, split traffic and sped past our window, while a pair of road-sweeping-rubbish-crunching vehicles went about their daily business slowly and loudly. Inside, my son, incensed that he wasn’t allowed smarties for breakfast, lay on the floor howling.

Dressed hurriedly and still shuddering with the last gasping sobs, we joined the fray on Via Galvani, which now included some argy-bargy over double parking, blasphemous insults being thrown back and forth like a ball. We bought two squares of hot pizza bianca from Guerrini and then walked past the fire station, down via Marmorata and into the cemetery to visit a poet and count cats.

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In a crook of the ancient city wall, The Protestant or Non-Catholic Cemetery is an easy place to overlook. Which you might consider a good thing. But then you would miss the epitome of a secret garden just minutes from the chaos, a serene sanctuary of grass, gravel paths and graves, some of which rest under marbled-feathered angel wings. It’s a place that manages to be both bright and shady, overhung with umbrella pines and cypresses and heavy with the tangled scent of jasmine, oleander and plumbago.

Forbidden by catholic laws, protestants and other non-catholics have been buried on this site for hundreds of years. However the cemetery was only formally defined by the Holy See in 1821. It was also in 1821 that the young English poet John Keats, after three months in Rome seeking a better climate for his worsening tuberculosis, died and was buried in the cemetery. Two years later the reckless Percy Bysshe Shelley, having drowned at sea, was also buried in the cemetery, as was the son of Goethe;  the Russian painter Karl Brullov and Antonio Gramsci, the founder of the Italian Communist Party. Here are the graves of protestants, orthodox christians, jews, muslims, atheists and agnostics, the graves of writers, painters, sculptors, historians, archaeologists, diplomats, scientists, architects and poets whose tomb inscriptions are engraved in more than fifteen languages.

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Sitting on a bench, counting cats in the sweet calm and unlikely November sun, I realised it was the 2nd of November, All Souls’ Day, The Day of the Dead and I was in a cemetery. An egalitarian cemetery in which the most eclectic and creative, often young, sometimes reckless, occasionally revolutionary group of people are buried, many of them non-Italian’s (and often English) who made their home in Italy. We went to visit Keats where I managed four lines of Ode to Autumn, then Shelly, where I managed three of Ozymandias, before realising my son was attempting to climb on top of a tomb. We said goodbye to as many souls as we could, crunched through the gravel – which is hilarious if you are two – and left the calm for the noise – which had subsided – once more.

Later the same day baking fave dolci or sweet beans, felt appropriate too, after all, the ritual of offering fave (broad beans) as solace for visiting souls on the 2nd of November dates back to pre-christian times. Over time the fave offered evolved into sweet biscuits called fave dolci or fave dei morti. Which aren’t actually fave at all, but crisp almond biscuits, aromatised with citrus or cinnamon and dusted with icing sugar to look like fave, or little bones, hence the other name ossi di morti. A sweet treat for visiting souls and a reminder of family joy and sorrow.

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They are simple to make. Having pound almonds and fine sugar into dusty crumbs, you add butter, an egg, the zest of a lemon and just enough flour to bring everything together into a sticky dough. Very sticky, don’t worry! Then with well-floured hands you temper a spoonful of the dough first into a ball and then – on a well-floured board – a log. You then cut the log into short lengths, move them onto a lined baking tray and then press each piece gently in the center, ostensibly making it look like a fave. Once the fave dolci are baked, you dust them with icing sugar.

Fave dolci are crisp but with the soft, round flavour of toasted almond and the distinct note of citrus, from the, um, citrus zest. They are a little heavier than amaretti – which is the small quantity of flour – but are still light, brittle enough to shatter between your teeth and then melt in your mouth. They are good with an espresso and please – if not all – most souls on most days.

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Fave dolci (almond beans)

Adapted from The Brilliant Food of Rome and Lazio by Oretta Zanini De Vita

  • 100 g almonds
  • 100g fine sugar
  • 80 g plain flour plus more for dusting
  • the zest of a large unwaxed lemon
  • 25 g butter (at room temperature)
  • 1 medium egg

Using a pestle and mortar or blender, crush or pulse the sugar and almond into a fine flour. Transfer to a bowl and then add the flour, butter, zest and eggs and using a spoon bring the mixture together into a sticky dough. Do not be tempted to add more flour at this point, the mixture should be sticky.

With well-floured hands break the dough into 6 pieces and then on a well floured board roll each piece into a 2 cm thick cylinder and then cut each cylinder into 2 cm long sections. Press each piece with the tip of your index finger so they look like fave and then arrange them on a baking tray lined with greaseproof paper.

Bake in a preheated oven at 180° / 350F for 20 minutes or until the biscuits are just pale golden. Allow to cool and dust with icing sugar.

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If you are coming to Rome, I highly recommend a visit to the Non-Catholic Cemetery. Try and get there as early as possible (it opens at nine) and you could well have the place all to yourself. Also if you understand Italian, Alesandro Rubinetti and Teatro Reale organise excellent and evocative walking tours of the cemetery.

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Filed under almonds, biscuits and biscotti, cucina romana, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, Roman food, Testaccio

losing my marbles

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Years ago I signed up for a book club. Not a book club as we know them nowadays, meaning a group of people who have ostensibly read the same book meeting to discuss it while drinking the same number of bottles as participants (or maybe that is just us), but a book sales club. This book sales club ran adverts in the Guardian newspaper and I, aged eighteen and in possession of my first cheque book and ignoring the suspicious mutterings of others, was seduced by the introductory offer of a free dictionary, thesaurus, encyclopedia of opera and two ‘beautifully bound‘ editions: Keat’s poetry and Jane Austen’s Emma. I signed up and sent off my subscription fee in the form of a cheque for a tiny sum.

My free books arrived and they were, as promised, beautifully bound. I spent an afternoon drunk on the smell of virgin books, plastic bubble wrap and youthful hubris. I also had a sip of the catalogue listing other beautifully bound books I might like to order. Which I set aside of course, I wasn’t about to be seduced by any of that! I’d paid my fee, I’d received my free books, and that, as far as I was concerned, was that. There was a printed sheet at the bottom of the box, but I didn’t read it, after all, who needs small print when you have Ode to a Nightingale, Emma Woodhouse and a small reference library?

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A month later another box of books arrived and a letter congratulating me on my decision to keep the limited edition books along with a bill for said books and three new even more bloody beautifully bound volumes they thought I might be interested in. I panic opened the whole lot, popped an entire sheet of bubble wrap in record time, read the small print, panicked some more and then took drastic action and hid the box under the bed. I did the same with the box and bill a month later.

I can’t actually remember how everything was resolved, teary admissions, regression, trips to the post office, my dad and his cheque book. Why I bring this up today is because as I dug marbled beans from their equally marbled pods a few days ago and while Luca played with an electrical socket, I remembered the infamous book club and books, one of which is on my shelf here in Rome. Books whose outsides are cloth bound and inside covers are a double spread of marbled paper;  exquisite aqueous designs in ivory and crimson that mottle, swirl and swell and are reminiscent of borlotti beans. Books like beans, or beans like books, or simply a mottled and tenuous link.

I’ve cooked borlotti beans twice this week. The first batch was fresh and used to make pasta e fagioli. The second batch was dried Borlotto di Lamon from Veneto, more subdued in colour: beige and burgundy but almost as lovely as their fresh cousins. The name borlotti by the way, come from the verb borlare or tumble and evokes the way the oldest plants grow.

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Unlike fresh borlotti, dried beans need soaking for at least eight hours and ideally overnight before being brought to the boil in fresh water and then simmered until tender and, having lost their mottled charm, turned soft chestnut-brown. They are then ready to be simmered in tomato sauce: fagioli al pomodoro.

I’ve already sung the praises of my mouli/food mill/passa verdure, my favorite kitchen tool, more than once. I will again. Nothing, except maybe a fine sieve and some deft work with the back of a spoon, gives quite the same, smooth but distinct and grainy quality to plum tomatoes/soup/ poached fruit/ root vegetables as a food mill. For this recipe, the sophisticatedly named: beans in sauce, you need 500 g of milled plum tomatoes. Having milled, crushed or blended the tomatoes you then add them to a pan in which you have sautéed a small onion, a rib of celery and a some chopped flat leafed parsley in plenty of olive oil.

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Once you have united the beans with the sauce, you stir and let the pan bubble gently for another 10 minutes or so. You may need to add a little more water as the final dish should be fluid (but not thin and runny) and roll easily from the spoon. Be generous with the seasoning. The beans are good straight away, but even better after a few hours, better still the next day when the flavours have settled and the beans have absorbed even more of sauce.

Borlotti beans, cooked until tender, so creamy and nutty and tasting somewhere between a chestnut and a kidney bean, simmered in well-seasoned smooth tomato sauce are good, tasty and satisfying to both make and eat. This is food that pleases (rather than impresses), food that calms even the most hyperactive two-year old and a mother who keeps losing her marbles.

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Fagioli al pomodoro – beans with tomato

Adapted from The Food of Rome and Lazio by Oretta Zanini de Vita and translated by Maureen Fant. The original recipe is for fresh beans and also includes 50 g of prosciutto fat (or guanciale) which I am sure makes it even more delicious – not that it wasn’t delicious without. It really is worth seeking out best quality plum tomatoes and beans. Three sage leaves added to the beans while they cook gives a lovely musky flavour to the beans.

serves 4

  • 1 kg of fresh borlotti in their pods or 300 g dried borlotti beans soaked overnight
  • 3 tbsp olive oil or lard
  • a small onion
  • a small rib of celery
  • a few fat stalks of flat leaved parsley
  • 500 g best quality plum tomatoes, milled or crushed
  • salt and pepper

If you are using dried beans soak them in plenty of cold water for at least eight hours or overnight. Drain the soaked beans, put them back in a heavy- based pan, cover by at least two inches with fresh water, bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Cook the beans for one hour, and then begin checking for doneness. Depending on their age, size, and variety, beans can take anywhere from an hour to three to cook. Have patience. Keep the beans at a simmer and taste as they start to become tender. Add more water as needed to keep the beans submerged, and stir occasionally. Add a pinch of salt after an hour of cooking. Once the beans are cooked, pull them from the heat and leave them to cook in their cooking water.

If you are using fresh beans, shell them and then boil them in salted water for about 25 minutes or until tender.

Peel and finely chop the onion. Finely chop the celery and parsley – both stalk and leaf. Warm the olive oil in a deep saute pan and add the onion, celery and parsley then saute over a gentle flame unit soft and translucent.

Mill, crush or blend the tomatoes until they are smooth and add to the onion, celery and parsley. Stir and season with salt and pepper and leave the pan simmering for 15 minutes. Add the drained beans (keep the broth), stir and leave cooking for another 10 minutes, adding a little of the bean broth if nesseary. Check seasoning. Allow the beans to sit for 10 minutes (or for hours) or so before serving.

These beans are even better the next day, maybe even better the day after that. If your kitchen is cool you can leave them overnight in the coolest corner and then reheat them gently the next day before serving., If you keep them longer than a day, store them in the fridge but remember to pull them out an hour or so before you want to gently re-heat and then eat.

We had our beans with fried eggs and pizza bianca. I am sure they would also go well with sausages or pork chop.

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Filed under Beans and pulses, cucina romana, food, Roman food, supper dishes, tomato sauce

the other quarter

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Now the leaves are falling, if I lean precariously from my balcony I can just about make out the statue of a winged god punching out an innocent bull through the branches of the trees that line Via Galvani. God and bull sit above the entrance of the Ex-mattatoio, Rome’s sprawling ex-slaughterhouse that closed for business in 1975 .

I stood looking up at the bull and the god, then down at the collage of cobblestones and cigarette butts, with my friend Joanna nearly nine years ago. The Ex-mattatoio was the one of the stops on Joanna’s self-styled architectural tour of Testaccio. A tour for which Joanna wore red and yellow high heels, with style it has to said, not a stumble, which is quite an achievement if you consider the cobblestones and libel worthy pavements. A tour that steered us from imperial ruins, domes and sepia-stained piazze down river to a quarter shaped like a quarter or a wedge of cheese. A quarter crisscrossed with streets filled with 19th century residential blocks, boasting a futurist post office, a boisterous market that smelt ripe and bosky, an abandoned slaughterhouse, a plethora of trattorie and bars I wanted to try and a charm I couldn’t quite put my finger on. In short: where I wanted to live.

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To understand something of Testaccio and the Ex-mattatoio is to understand something of Roman food – or one aspect of it at least – and therefore part of the story of Rome. Food as story or story as food or something akin to that. The area has been associated with food trading since ancient Roman times when it was a port and sprawl of warehouses. In fact Testaccio takes its name from an archeological site called Monte dei Cocci that rises somnolently at the bottom of the wedge, which is in fact a pile of broken but neatly stacked amphorae dating from the fourth century. The Monte is now the hub for a cluster of nightclubs that are burrowed into its base, meaning at night ancient amphorae jolt in time to drum and bass, latin jazz and eighties disco: ancient and everyday colliding with almost banal ease.

It was in a bar in the shadow of Monte dei Cocci, while her dog tried to avoid the shameless advances of my anarchic son, that my neighbour, sociologist and writer Irene Ranaldi talked to me about the part of Rome I have lived in for nearly nine years.

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Until it was developed in the late nineteenth century, Testaccio was an open space dotted with ruinous clues as to its ancient significance and vines producing wine grapes for industrious Romans. During and after 1873, a zoning plan turned the former port and open space into a quarter of public housing, factories and the slaughterhouse. It was supposed to be the ultimate in working class neighbourhoods where thousands of immigrants from all over Italy attracted by the promise of work and the metropolitan lifestyle Roman had to offer, could live.

For the next hundred years the slaughterhouse was quite literally the bloody, beating heart of the quarter, providing work and meat for those who could afford it. The workers of course couldn’t afford the meat (and little else, poverty was endemic), but were paid in kind with the bits nobody else wanted, meaning the offal that made up a fifth of the animal’s weight. It was this quinto quarto or fifth quarter that the workers took home to their wives or local trattoria owners, who in turn, inventively and resourcefully turned it into tasty, sustaining meals.

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This is the uncompromising and distinctive quinto quarto cooking, a style of cooking evolved through necessity but continued for posterity, taste and because the bits neglected became the bits selected (by some at least). A style of cooking you still find in trattorie and homes: ox tail cooked slowly with celery, tripe with tomato sauce and dusted with pecorino cheese, lamb’s offal with artichokes, grilled sweetbreads and intestines. These are dishes that merit attention and  – for some of us –  a leap beyond misconceptions, squeamishness and a possible moral crisis because they are tasty and good, because they are part of the animal we (may or may not) decide to eat, because they are dishes that tell a story.

Which is why I think it’s important I mention them here, after all, they are as much a part (albeit a less regular one) of this chaotic – and messy, so messy, I am a domestic disgrace – Roman-kitchen-of-sorts as freshly baked pizza bianca, battered courgette blossoms, pasta with beans, spaghetti al pomodoro, braised beef, artichokes, curls of puntarelle, tiny sweet peas, fave, ricotta, sour cherries, sweet-yeated buns, strawberry scented grapes, ugly hazelnut biscuits that taste buono and other good things.

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My grandpa Gerry would have loved today’s recipe: Coratella con carciofi , so would my Grandpa John, although the artichokes might have given him heartburn, but then most things gave him heartburn. All my grandparents knew the merits, both economically and gastronomically, of offal, that if you eat meat it is disingenuous and wasteful not to eat the whole animal. My brother does too, Ben this post is in no small part for you. Coratella is lambs offal: liver, lungs and heart, a beautiful, complex cluster - it is, it is I will hear no different –  of rosy-pink, coral and chestnut-brown. Cooked well, coratella is a textual and flavoursome delight, the liver is creamy and delicate, the lungs pillowy and tasting rather like pot-roasted pork and the heart rich and thick. Carciofi are artichokes, these are the first, long spindly things that really do remind me artichokes are wild thistles.

Probably the most difficult thing is finding some fresh lambs coratella from well-reared animals. Persistence with a good butcher should do the trick. You also need a keen hand to ease the lungs away from the membrane. You need a keen hand too, for trimming the artichokes, not that it is complicated, more finicky, I hope this is helpful. Once all the elements are prepared it is just a matter of frying them in the correct order.

First the onion and artichokes, adding a little white wine and then leaving the pan at a burping-bubble of a braise until the wedges are tender. Then in another pan you fry the coratella, adding the parts to the pan according to how quickly they cook, so first the lungs, then the heart and finally just for the last few minutes the liver. The coratella is cooked when the lungs whistle and all the parts are lightly browned and cooked through. To finish, you unite the meat and the artichokes, season with salt and pepper, lemon juice and maybe a little mint, then serve.

Food with a story, a story with food.

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Coratella con carciofi - lambs pluck with artichokes

Adapted  from a recipe in il talismano della Felicità  and Il Cucchiaio d’Argento

serves 4

  • 4 artichokes
  •  a lemon
  • a small onion
  • 4 tbsp olive oil or 50 g butter or lard
  • 200 ml white wine
  • 5oo g lamb’s pluck (lung, heart and liver)
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper.
  • fresh mint and another lemon

Trim the artichokes, rubbing them with the cut side of a lemon to stop them discolouring and then slice them into thin wedges. Keep the artichokes in a bowl acidulated with the juice of half a lemon until you are ready to use them.

Peel and dice the onion. Warm 2 tbsp of the olive oil in a saute pan and then fry the onion until soft and translucent. Add the drained artichoke wedges, stir well so each one is coated with oil, then pour over the white wine and reduce the heat so the pan bubbles gently. Allow the artichokes to cook/braise for 15 minutes or until they are tender. Add a little more wine or water if the pan looks dry. Set the artichokes aside.

Prepare the pluck by pulling the lungs away from the membrane and then cut all three parts into small pieces.

In another pan  warm the other 2 tbsp of olive oil and then add the lungs and cook for 10 minutes, then add the heart and cook for another 10 and finally the liver which should take another 5 or six minutes.

Put the other pan with the artichokes back on another flame and then once the meat is lightly browned and cooked through add it to the artichokes, season generously with salt, pepper and a good squeeze of lemon, maybe some ripped mint and if you feel it needs it, another slosh of wine, cook for another few minutes, stirring every now and then. Serve immediately.

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Filed under artichokes, coratella, cucina romana, offal, quinto quarto, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, Roman food

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