Glad tidings from the kitchen

Over the Tuscan Stove

Judy Witts
December 14, 2006

The holidays evoke an inevitable urge to cook, not that I ever need much to be inspired here in Florence. I am almost thankful that there is no Thanksgiving here in Italy, as the feasting rites of Christmas almost put me under the table. In this country, food always seems to be the gift of choice.

Baskets of fruits, chestnuts, chocolates, Torrone nougat, and cookies all add to the huge feast that characterizes the holiday season. Traditions vary from family to family and region to region, but many start the feeding frenzy on Christmas Eve, la Vigilia, with the ‘Feast of the Seven Fish.’ Seven is a perfect number—seven days of creation, seven deadly sins and seven heavenly vir-tues. The seven fish that grace your holiday plate can be: shrimp/gamberi, clams/vongole, mus-sels/cozze and conch/sgungilli (often used for antipasti and pasta sauces as well as served on their own, either steamed or sautéed). Calamari/squid, octopus/polpo and cuttlefish/seppia and cod/baccalà also add more seafood choices to the meal. The central dish should be a special large fish such as sea bass/branzino or salmon, served roasted, head and all, for a grand ef-fect.  

The Christmas Eve meal includes antipasto; soup, pasta or risotto; roasted or poached fish; several vegetables; salad; cheese course with fruit; Christmas cakes, chocolates, cookies, dried fruit and nuts followed by coffee and after dinner drinks to help with digestion. And all this is just the beginning, to prepare the palate for Christmas lunch!

Christmas lunch foresees the same courses, but does not generally include fish. Goose, turkey or meat abound in the same multiple courses. The main Christmas meal happens at lunch time and is generally followed by games of Tombola (Bingo) or card games. Family and friends spend the afternoon nibbling away on additional goodies only to start over again on a smaller scale for dinner. The biggest mistake you can make is to NOT EAT before the meal; your stom-ach will shrink and you won’t make it through.

When it comes to holiday meals, there is no competing  with Italians on their own turf, but I still enjoy the gift of food for the holidays. At Christmas I break out all my old recipes and make zil-lions of cookies and give them to my favorite vendors at the market. So let the feasting begin and get ready for the Ceppo (gifts from your vendors at the holidays if you have been a good client).

One of my favorite cookies is a simplified Renaissance cookie called Ricciarelli. These delicate Christmas cookies are said to be shaped like the almond eyes of Madonnas painted by Ren-aissance artists. Much like almond paste or marzipan, my version is less sweet and quicker to make. The traditional cookies are a three-day process; ground almonds are mixed with a sugar syrup for a day, then formed the next day and let to rest again, then baked. I find the traditional cookie to be sweeter and more marzipan-like than my recipe.

Often I will form the cookies and then bake them right before I serve them, so they are warm right out of the oven. Really special, but not traditional. I prefer instant satisfaction. Serve with a lovely rich dessert wine, like a Tuscan Vin Santo, a Recioto from Verona, or a Passito di Pan-telleria, and you will be in heaven.RICCIARELLI (SENESE ALMOND COOKIES)     Makes about 36 cookies

Preheat oven to 185 C

2 cups almond flour / farina di mandorle (you may need an additional cup of almond flour if your dough is soft)2 large egg whites2 tablespoons flour 001/2 teaspoon baking powder/ lievito in polvere2 cups powdered sugar (10 x icing sugar) zucchero a velo, non vanigliato1 tsp almond extract essenza di mandorle amare (I use bitter almond extract) add more for a stronger flavor. 1 cup extra powdered sugar for rolling the cookies before baking If you don’t have almond flour you can make your own. I use a manual Swedish nut grinder, since a food processor doesn’t do it right. If you are making your own almond flour, use peeled unroasted nuts for the classic cookie. Add the powdered sugar. Combine the baking powder with the flour and fold in. Beat the egg whites until stiff and mix into the almond mixture. Add the almond extract and blend until you have a soft paste. Place some powdered sugar on a clean, dry surface. Form one tablespoon of dough into a small ball, roll in the sugar, and then form the traditional diamond shape, flattening the cookie with the palm of your hand. Place the cookies on a baking sheet covered with baking paper. Bake for 10-12 minutes until lightly golden. Cook-ing them at a lower temperature for a longer time will make a softer cookie. I like the contrast of the crunch.

 My variations:Ricciarelli are fabulous with tiny cubes of candied orange peel or candied ginger rolled into them and then dipped in chocolate.

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