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Archive for the ‘Sweet Things’ Category

Dear Readers,

Thanks for sticking with me in my absence. I’ve been busy finishing my dissertation, and am finally down to proofreading, formatting, and double-checking footnotes.  I’ve also been eating well, and enjoying as much time as possible with our good friends here during our last weeks in Rome.  And I’ve been having fun with this little guy, who had a wonderful year at the amazing Scuola Arcobaleno making countless kinds of art, learning to play the violin and piano, running in his first track meet, and, most importantly of all, speaking Italian so well that he corrects his parents’ pronunciation and grammar.

I’ll return to blogging in a few weeks….

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long lapse

piñata, pensive preschoolers

Thank you for sticking with me, readers.  I’ve been busy with visitors, Jack’s 5th birthday party, more visitors, my dissertation, dissertation, dissertation…  Did you know that it wasn’t until the 1840s that wood pulp was used to make paper?  Or that Byron could speak so aptly of 21st century America?

Man’s a strange animal and makes strange use
Of his own nature and the various arts,
And likes particularly to produce
Some new experiment to show his parts.
This is the age of oddities let loose,
Where different talents find their different marts.
You’d best begin with truth, and when you’ve lost your
Labour, there’s a sure market for imposture.

On a less cynical note, spring is here, and so are our favorite seasonal foods: strawberries, fava beans, asparagus, repeat.  Strawberry shortcake=sublime simplicity.

And check out the strawberry cream torte from Dolci Desideri Jack chose for his birthday! (That’s Nico admiring it; Jack is in blue, holding a very non-locavore cupcake.)

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dolci & vini

Sweets and wines.  That seems to be the theme of the weekend, starting yesterday morning when Jack and I made an errand-packed trip to Dolci Desideri to soak up the scene as well as the coffee and treats.  A happy crowd always packs the small space in front of the counter, but the orders flow in and out with amazing rapidity and ease.  If it weren’t for the friendliness of the 3 people on the breakfast crew, you’d think they must be highly tuned robots.  I worked in coffee shops and at restaurants for many years, and remember the way meeting the meal-time rush becomes an experience of purely bodily memory, in which the paces and spaces between the plates and esspresso machine and dishwasher is mapped onto the mind.

Jack’s school friend Tobia was there with his Mama, Papa, and baby sister Anita, who was lapping up cappuccino foam—a passion her Papa finds “worrying.”  Tobia and Jack sat next to each other on the little yellow pleather couch, and giggled at each other’s sugar- and lemon-cream-smeared faces.  They asked what ciambelle were called in English, and when Jack said “doughnut,” they all started laughing.

We picked out some cookies—and early Easter “ovetti” to bring to the dinner party tonight at Jack’s friend Felix’s apartment.

In the evening, Peter and I walked across the street to the Villa Villino where Leonard Barkan and Nick Barberio were hosting a tasting party with a title: Vivat Bacchus.  Best known as an eminent art historian and literary critic famous for such groundbreaking (the pun is hard to resist) works as Unearthing the Past, Leonard is also an oenophile and wine writer for Gambero Rosso.  He and Nick, a photographer with an eye for everyday ironies, are also incredibly generous.  They invited the whole community, and served 20 different wines from 5 of the major Italian wine making regions.  Leonard had prepared a list of all the wines, and set them up on the marble counter according to region and varietal.  (Thank you, friends!)

I’ve learned so much about Italian wines over the past few months, and now feel less bewildered and apt to choose something with a well-known name.  I tasted 5 wines from 3 regions.  I’ve always preferred the crisp mineraliness of Alsatian wines in whites, so I liked the two wines I tried from the Alto Adige: a floral Gewurztraminer (Walch 2008) and a Moscato Giallo/Goldmuskateller (Rottensteiner 2008). The latter was full of apricots and was both light and dense at once.  I also had just a sip of a Tocai, Livio Felluga 2008 that was also like delicious stone fruits but dry and crisp.

There were all kinds of goodies to eat between sips, and I stuck to the marinated olives and two kinds of pecorino—one cream-colored and sharp, and the other deep yellow-orange and dotted with black peppercorns.  That was delicious—and made a nice bridge to the first red I tried, a 2006 Barbera d’Alba called Tre Pile from Aldo Conterno, my favorite wine of the night.  From there (and over the course of two hours) I moved to the most full-bodied red, a Nebbiolo d’Alba: Rocca Albino 2007.  I like wines that can hold their contradictions without neutralizing them—like those whites I mentioned, and like this one, which was both lush and stiff at the same time. I guess wine writers call that “structured.”  And that’s about right.  The Barbera and Nebbiolo I tried had architectural aspects.

This is an appropriate style, in a place where you can’t help but be steeped in the appreciation of architecture, and where buildings are strong and durable, and yet elegant and soaring at the same time.   For example… the Tempietto:

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Sunday morning was spectacularly sunny, and warming up quickly.  We had our first spring day (followed by more rain today).  It was perfect for our walk—with Anna, Jon, Lulu, Jesse, Rena, Nick, and Zoe—down the hill and across the Tiber to the old Jewish ghetto where one special forno makes perfect doughnuts.

When we got to the octagonal tower next to the old Cenci palazzo, we could smell the sweet warm scent of baking dough.

There was a line out the door, as expected.

(Those cakes in the window are ricotta-chocolate chip and ricotta-cherry tortes, with their crumbly, not-too-sweet burnt sugar crusts.)

Jon went in with a handful of change, and came out with the last 4 doughnuts.  Just in time!  These kids would have been inconsolable.

These are the antithesis of Krispy Kremes: dense, chewy, and just slightly sweet.

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The gelaterias are opening their doors.  Puddles in the cobblestones sparkle in the sunlight. Rainstorms are rushing through, and leaving in their wake warm spots and green buds.

During one of these post-rain spells yesterday, Jack and I walked down to Trastevere to buy a birthday present for Agnese, whose party is today.  Our favorite destination for toy and art-supply shopping is Piazza San Cosimato, which has an open air market, a playground, great scootering terrain, and three toy stores.  After picking out a magic wand and a set of stamps complete with ink-pad and pouch, we went to the playground.

After bouncing and climbing and swinging and staring at the winos, Jack was ready for our next stop: Fior di Luna gelateria, where all of the ingredients are organic, local, and/or fair trade, and the gelato tastes intensely of its few flavorful parts—whether those are pistachios, vanilla beans, or blood oranges.  This gelateria also uses only seasonal ingredients, so the flavors that dominate now are citrus, nuts, and chocolate.

Spring is on the way, though.  Look at the flowers popping up in the Bass Garden!

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The weather this weekend is Janus-faced: stormy, dark, and wintry yesterday, bright, clear, and spring-like today.  A perfect morning for walking around Rome, and for seeing the sunlight stream through the windows of Borromini’s whimsical, symmetrical, magnificent dome of Sant’ Ivo della Sapienza.

I think this space was meant to be seen, and felt, on a clear day in winter, when the light is clean and welcome, as it warms the white dome and flashes off of the pressed gold leaf.

On our way to this gorgeous, idiosyncratic space, we took the time to notice some other, smaller wonders of Rome.  The water line of an 1870 flood:

A gigantic basin:

Borromini’s corkscrew steeple:

We stopped at a cafe to warm our hands and revive Jack, who was getting limp with hunger.  Like a good little Roman child, he carbo-loaded.  In rapid succession, he ate a cornetto (croissant), a mortadella and mozzarella panino, and a chocolate egg with a Hello Kitty surprise in the middle.  He washed it all down with some aqua minerale frizzante.

Then, he chilled:

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It’s cold, rainy, and February.  But with a fire in the fireplace, an amazing Indian lunch, and a handful of confetti, we brightened up this dismal day.

Jon and some of the kids went out to the Triangle Garden to gather some dampish wood.  It lit… and smoked and hissed… but also blazed, and had the kids alternately staring entranced at its flames and running helter skelter calling out for hot cocoa.  Lulu lolled, and Jack fanned the flames.

Mona and the cooks made the best Indian meal I’ve ever had, with curried chicken, dal, spiced rice, papadum, raita, two chutneys, and sauteed greens.  Everyone went back for more, and then we noticed the cake—a fluffy almond cake infused with toasted, crushed cardamom seeds.  With a dollop of tangy yogurt on the side, and a perfectly pulled esspresso, this dessert went down in history.

What an inspired culinary performance!

And despite the rain, Carnevale goes on.  We’re saving most of our confetti for tomorrow, when the sun will shine, but I sprinkled a handful down from the window on Jack, for whom the simple pleasure of watching brightly colored snow fall is close to ecstasy.

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I went on a walk this morning, after a doppio cappuccino didn’t help my concentration.  Down the steep steps, around the curve of Via Garibaldi, through some narrow Trastevere streets, across Ponte Sisto to Campo di Fiori, where Giordano Bruno presides over the messy mosaic of the open air market.  I stopped in some shops with “Saldi” signs—holiday sales still going on.  (Found a rust-colored viscose-velvet skirt that has a nice swing to it.)  I walked by Roscioli and didn’t go in, for once.

I took lots of pictures of architectural angles that struck me, and found, on my way back up the steps to the Janiculum that the door to the courtyard where the Tempietto stands was open.  This is a symmetrical, serene little place.  A tiny round temple that somehow feels proportionally perfect inside the plain block of a cloister courtyard, it was designed and built by Donato Bramante around 1502.  All of my new architect friends have me thinking about how the treatment of space translates—and translates into—emotions.  The dignity and simplicity of the Doric columns, the details, down to the rainwater drain, made me feel a subdued awe, peace, calm, as if the world, for a moment, had some harmony.

Tempietto seen through the entrance arch.

rainwater drain

Soon, though, I realized that the two guys in easy conversation at the gate, jingling their keys from time to time, were waiting for me to leave.  We all laughed when I finally caught their eye and hurried out.

After my brisk communion with commerce, architectural curves, and sacred spaces, I arrived just in time for lunch at the Academy.  It was one of those days when everything was good—especially the baked scamorza in a spicy tomato sauce, the farro roasted with lemons and fennel, the ricotta al forno, and the dessert: torta mimosa.  This cake would be perfect at a wedding. It is white, fluffy, with citrus hints and intensities in its delicate layers of crumb and buttercream.  The frosting on the outside is dusted with crumbly crumbles of the cake’s delicious crumb.  Of course I didn’t get a picture, and when I looked for one on google, all I found were these, which are vulgar, garish, impostors of the angelic dessert we ate today.

If you’d like to see my pictures of some architectural history and whimsy that’s at every turn in Rome—like this curvaceous facade—go to my Flickr page.

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We’re in the season of Carnevale, the forty days before Lent, which used to be, for Italians, one long party, when masquerade meant license.  (For some of Lord Byron’s lines on this tradition, check out my fritter post.)  Speaking of fritters, frappe—a crispy, ruffled kind of fried dough topped with a blizzard of powdered sugar—is now in all of the forno windows, beckoning people with its simple mix of sweet, fat, once-a-year bliss.  On our way to the market this morning, Ramie and I stopped at Dolce Desideri (as usual).

There are all kinds of other traditional Carnevale pastries, too, some of which are variations on what we call “doughnut holes” and Italians call “bombe.”  (I have to admit, I sometimes give in to Jack’s whine on the way to school, and stop at Caffe Tazza D’Oro, where I get a cappuccino and he gets “una bomba piccola,” a little ball of sweet, sugar-crusted dough small enough to fit in my fingers’ OK sign.)

From Desideri, we went to the market to stock up on delicious seasonal greens. I bought a little head of treviso radicchio that looks like an overblown dark rose.

The presence of limes at this stall made us realize there is a complete lack of limes in Italian cooking—at least around here.  Why?  Every other citrus fruit grows in abundance, in the gardens here, in the playground at Jack’s school, in courtyards all over the city.  But this is the only place I’ve ever seen limes.

This is also the place to get ginger root, dried fruits, bulk nuts, and spices.

From there, I went to my favorite local forno to get some pizza bianca.

I also bought some puntarelle, which I later tossed in the traditional Roman way with lots of garlicky vinaigrette and chopped anchovies.  Puntarelle are the hearts of a tall chicory variety, sliced lengthwise and soaked in cold water, which makes them curl and takes off some of their bitterness.

The recipe at epicurious.com suggests substituting endive, if you can’t find any chicory.  (I’ve adjusted the amounts a bit from their recipe):

  • 3 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 6 anchovy fillets, rinsed, patted dry
  • Large pinch of coarse kosher salt
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 4 large heads of Belgian endive (about 1 1/3 pounds), halved lengthwise, then cut lengthwise into thin strips

Mix garlic, anchovies, and salt in small bowl. Mash with back of wooden spoon or firm spatula until paste forms. Whisk in oil, vinegar, and mustard. Season dressing to taste with salt and generously with pepper.

Place endive in large bowl of ice water. Refrigerate 1 hour. Drain well. Place in clean bowl. Toss with anchovy dressing and serve.

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Just when you think you can’t eat or drink anything else, someone has a party.  That’s just how the holidays are.  Yesterday, we invited a few friends who are leaving Rome today to have a low-key dinner with us.  I planned to make those cabbage-wrapped pork meatballs I wrote about recently.  Then, we got Nick’s invitation to join him and Rena and 15 others for a party the aim of which was to finish off the wild boar stew he’d made for Christmas dinner.  We decided to move the meal to our apartment, right next door, for reasons having to do with sleeping children and baby monitors. And then, we ran into Jason, who said he’d bring down his leftover rabbit stew.  Meat fest!

Sensing, perhaps, that this would be a meal of small restraint, our guests showed up with cookies, cheese, and panetone, and copious bottles of wine, Cointreau, limoncello, and scotch.

And I had decided that the dry little biscotti in the cupboard, however tasty on an abstemious day, would not stand up next to such a feast, and so I made chocolate mousse.

This is all that remains of a large bowl of the fluffy, dark, silky, luxuriant dessert:

To top it off, along with some light-as-air amaretti that Lisa and Philip brought, I whipped some Cointreau into the cream.  Oh, my!

The recipe I used was a doubling of this one from Bon Appetit, May 2001.  The sugar, eggs and milk were organic, and the chocolate 70% cacao.

Bittersweet Chocolate Mousse

Start this recipe six hours to one day ahead.

Yield: Makes 6 servings

1/2 cup whole milk
2 large egg yolks
4 tablespoons sugar
6 ounces bittersweet (not unsweetened) or semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 large egg whites
Pinch of salt

Whipped cream

Whisk milk, egg yolks, and 2 tablespoons sugar in heavy small suacepan to blend. Place over medium-low heat and stir until mixture thickens enough to coat spoon, about 7 minutes (do not boil). Remove from heat. Immediately add chocolate and whisk until smooth. Whisk in vanilla. Transfer mixture to medium bowl; cool to lukewarm, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes. Beat egg whites and salt in large bowl until soft peaks form. Gradually add remaining 2 tablespoons sugar, beating until stiff but not dry. Fold whites into cooled chocolate mixture in 3 additions. Divide mousse among 6 goblets or transfer to serving bowl. Refrigerate until cold and set, at least 6 hours. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and keep refrigerated.)

(Actually, I’d recommend making it a day ahead. The texture is better the second day.)

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