22 November 2010

Easy Peasy Dried Fruit Compote

I ran across this suggestion for dried fruit the other day from a list of favorite holiday desserts, credited to a Mark Bittman post. My photo may not do it justice but it was the last of what turned out to be quite a large recipe and it didn't take the two us all that long to polish it off. I was drawn to this winter dessert suggestion for it's simplicity and use of some ingredients I knew I had that would greatly benefit from this treatment. Stewed, poached and baked fruit desserts are not only a staple in this part of Italy, but they are quite beloved. It doesn't get any easier than this and although perhaps rather humble looking it is elevated to star status by our choice of fruits and the addition of the rose water. You could of course use any sort of flavoring if rose or orange flower aren't available to you or your palate prefers something else. Rum, amaretto, or brandy for an alcoholic twist and of course, the perennial favorite of vanilla or almond would work, but I loved the subtle flavor of the rose water. I used a Monin brand rose water concentrate, that worked beautifully. I also cut the batch in half using 500g of dried fruit, roughly a little more than a pound of what I had on hand. We had some dried plums that were almost too dry to contemplate anything other than fillings or sauces for meats, and so many thinly sliced apples that I was afraid they would over whelm the mix, but they worked great. Next time I would surely add some sultanas( plump white raisins) and some of my coveted stash of dried cranberries to add texture and punch. I wouldn't call it an economical dessert unless you have your own dried fruit, but it has inspired me to make sure that next year I am more vigilant about drying all those delectable fruits as they come into season and the bounty is almost overwhelming. It is that good.
1#(500g) dried fruit filled this 9"(22cm) container on the left
Dried Fruit Compote
easily serves 8-10

2 pounds mixed (1kg) dried fruit 
(pitted prunes/plums, apricots, peaches, pears, apples, cranberries, cherries, white raisins ....your choice)
2 tablespoon of rose or orange blossom water (optional)**
Put all the dried fruit in a bowl and cover with tepid water.* 
Let sit for at least 24 hours covered, in not too warm of a room temperature, then move to the refrigerator for 24 hours more.
Stir in optional rose or orange blossom water or other choice of flavoring .
Don't be tempted to add any sweetener, as I found it to be just right as it is with the fruit playing the starring role.

Serve with crème fraîche or thick slightly sweetened greek style yogurt. 
I use to love vanilla Brown Cow and Mountain High yogurt brands when I lived in the US and they were available to me. I usually make my own now.
A sprinkling of toasted hazelnuts, pecans or coconut could be a nice finishing touch as well. 

**The amount of flavoring really depends on your taste and how the fruit absorbs it. For my 1 pound or 500g of fruit mix, I used 1 tablespoon when covering it with the water and another when I was ready to serve as I found I wanted the rose flavor to stand out more. I think the apples maybe muffled the flavor of the rose water.
* I used hot water as my fruit was home dried and really almost rock hard and it held up without disintegrating, but you should use discretion with the temperature of the water if you find your fruit is delicate. I allowed the mixture to cool for several hours after adding the hot water and then put it in the refrigerator and it really only took 1 day to sit before it was ready.

18 November 2010

Rites of Passage and a small tribute

Food, fun and what ever else comes along, is my tagline for this blog. I generally write about food and festivals with some recipes and on occasion life as it happens in my world. This post is about what comes along and doesn't fall into the fun category, but it is certainly in the life category, or to be more accurate, death and customs surrounding how we say good bye, that I have observed since living in Italy. I have no intention to be morbid, only to share my observations on what happens here in Italy when a loved one dies and a small tribute to our zia Laura.
Zia Laura Roncaglia and Marla
 It is something we all face, and usually most of us have had first hand experience with, but coming to a different country and observing the customs here, has made me reflect on the many familiarities as well the differences. Perhaps you will find it of interest, perhaps not. If not, you will probably skip over this post and hopefully return to a day when I'm back to sharing recipes or festivals. Today is about our farewell to aunt Laura and customs surrounding funerals as I observe the differences and similarities.
All of Fabrizio's family has been more than welcoming to me and shown me every kindness that one could hope for when joining in a family, especially one that you aren't able to communicate with a common language since Italian still doesn't roll off my lips with ease.  My shortcoming and loss, but that is another story for another day, which I probably won't be sharing today.  Anyway, Aunt Laura, has always made me feel so welcome and wonderful. She saw me as the person I hope to be, always making sure to let me know that she thought I was "molta brava" and wished someone like me would come along for her son to share his life with. High praise indeed. It made me aware of my shortcomings, but filled me with a warmth that always made me feel special. Naturally, I'm not sure I deserve such high praise, but of course, it did feel good. Laura is my father in law's younger sister and the baby of the family. She was a tiny, bird like woman who weighed in around  30-35 kg (65-80 lbs), fiercely independent and tough as they come. Her husband died when they were both around 38, leaving her to fend for herself and raise their son alone. Of course, she had her family's support, and endless friends and neighbors as people enjoyed her company, but she mainly made her own way. She took in sewing at home to repair, remodel or make things for neighbors and friends far and wide. She always had lots of piles of to do and done projects scattered around her sewing machine that sat prominently in the corner  of her main living kitchen room. When ever we visited she always out the coffee on and pulled out some ort of biscuit or sweet lurking around waiting to be brought on cue. Sh make normal coffee, but she also had a coffer maker that is sometimes referred to as Napolitano coffee, which is a type of drip coffee maker, that she insisted was French style coffee. It was all new to me and I naturally found it fascinating. She usually tucked in some sort of something to take home with us, no matter how much we protested. She reminded me of one of my great grandmothers when ever we went to visit. I just had the same sort of familiar feeling even when it was usually difficult for me to follow the Piemontese dialect,  but I  got along as best as I could and felt a great affection for her.  When Pope John Paul died, Laura decided she just had to go to his funeral and unbeknownst to any of us, she hopped on a train to Rome by herself and off she went and  stayed with friends during a time when Rome hadn't seen the likes of that many people for many a year. Quite remarkable I thought.
Pinerolo Duomo

Although she grew up in our Chisone valley, she lived in the same neighborhood of Pinerolo the rest of her life, and knew just about everyone. She was very social and kept busy making her rounds of her large circle of friends or around town to do her errands. She didn't keep her seat at home hot for very long if she could help it. She lived just across form the hospital for at least the past 10 years and had gotten to know everyone over there, not just because of some of her health issues, but  because she visited  friends and family when they found themselves in the hospital or sometimes to take a meal with the friends or staff of the hospital. We discovered that when my father in law was in the hospital for  a few days, she seemed to hold court and had many friends at the hospital and knew her way around the meal plan quite well.  People liked being around her and having her around. She was just fun. So when she went over to the hospital  two days ago and told them she wasn't feeling well, they took her in and tried to keep her going but she suffered a heart attack and was unable to pull through this time. Time and various aliments had taken their toll. The doctors called us and her son, who had called also letting us know her condition was grave. She hung on though until both her son and brother were able to arrive and say good bye while she was alert. She closed her eyes and left this earth quite peacefully.  A shock, even though we did know that her health was failing, it still came as a surprise when she departed and we are left without someone that has made us smile and brought warmth and love to our lives.
I found myself reflecting on some of the customs I have observed over the time I have been living in Italy and some of the customs seem to be familiar, some not, some regional,  and even a few quite jarring, but it is a time to draw together and reminisce, reflect, share a few tales and even a few secrets, certainly tears, and go on with living.
When I lived in Tuscany, I found they followed the casket from the church to the cemetery on foot and people applauded when the casket came out of the church and the people were waiting. I found that so surprising and confusing. After seeing it on television on more occasions I came to understand it was how people showed their respect. Quite opposite from the solemn quiet procession that I am familiar with in America.  Here in our valley, most people end up in the hospital in Pinerolo which is the large town at the mouth of our valley.  Unlike funeral homes like I am familiar with  there where your loved on is on display for visitation a night or two before burial, here they have a visitation at the hospital about an hour before your loved one is taken to the church of your choice. The body is laid out in a simple and tasteful wooden box with the cover of the box standing behind with a simple cross or crucifix adornment. There is a netting covering the body and people drop by to pay their last respects. There is a modest display of flowers, for the most part, except for perhaps the floral covering of the coffin and a huge wreath that is carried at the back door of the hearst and stands at the entrance to the church once you arrive. It caught my attention that everyone virtually had the same modest wooden box, which I found the simplicity refreshing and mildly comforting.  The placement of the top on the coffin and the ensuing bolting of the screws, gave a finality to the good bye process and moved us on to the next stage where arrived at the church to various services that are either of the protestant or Catholic persuasion, that I have attended here and not so very different from what I have known.

Pinerolo Duomo interior photo by James Martin

Here, in the Catholic tradition there is the saying of the rosary the night before and in Laura's neighborhood church the priest spoke as if her knew her and spoke to us of comfort. It was almost as a sermon. My father in law said it was highly unusual for a rosary and he wasn't so sure about it, but again I found it more familiar and there fore comforting.  The duomo funeral mass the next day included communion, which I was surprised by the wine being white and no one could tell me when this had changed from the wine being red to white as a tradition. For such a large cathedral the paintings on the wall made the occasion more intimate and the burning of the frankincense, created a somber but respectful atmosphere lightened by thw priest as he spoke from the scriptures and invited us to share the hand shake and embracing of one another in our vicinity. I had never experienced that at a funeral, but it was nice to greet one another even at such a somber time. All different traditions that I imagine have evolved over time and within communities as the times have changed.
So we say good bye to Pinerolo and arrive at the crematorium. This was a new experience for me and I must say a little unsettling. According to my father in law, that although cremation is fairly new here in Italy, the funeral director was telling him that he has found that it is about 50% cremations now.
This facility is new within the last 2 years. It is a lovely setting in the country, with a room that is tastefully understated and yet majestic. The view through the  series of curving windows  on one side of the floor to ceiling arched beams emphasized the grandness of the room with an atmospheric view out of those windows. The theme was a universal theme without any reference to religion. The lone violinist played soulful classical music as we arrived and the director spoke words of farewell and comfort and then the casket slowly departed  through the wall on a automated conveyor belt. I think that was the part that kind of got me. Perhaps too because we had gone through the ritual at the church it seemed finished to me, and this ceremony was like  a grave side burial, but not really and so it somehow gave me pause. Perhaps because it is unfamiliar to me, it seemed a little cold even though everyone there was warm and respectful. I'm not sure if only a ceremony there would have the same impact for me that a church funeral  with a group of friends and family gathered would have. Perhaps it was the lack of people there as it was only our immediate family, I'm not really sure. I know that I have always thought that since we are unable to be buried in a plot of ground where you actually go ashes to ashes, dust to dust, I have stated that I have chosen cremation. This farewell to zia left me wondering about my choice on a couple of levels but that is another day  and something more to contemplate. I miss the tradition I grew up with of going to someones home after the funeral for a get together of family and out of town friends and family. I always found it odd to be sharing food and stories about the deceased and family tales that I had never heard before. But then as I grew older I realized that sometimes this is a rare gathering of all the family and it is a time to cherish in spite of the circumstances.  The challenge every day is to "seize the day",  creating lasting  memories to savor later.

05 November 2010

Torta di Mele, Italy's favorite Apple Cake

This time of the year when the mountains are decked out with the autumnal color change of the trees, we are in the thick of apple season. I imagine that most of you in the northern hemisphere are as well.   Not a bad time of the year at all. The colors on our hills are really going all out now that the larch have kicked in for the upping of the yellow ante.
I've been making a wide variety of apple delights with our apple abundance and thought I must share an apple recipe as I haven't posted any type of recipe in awhile.  This weekend nearby the commune of Cavour kicks off it's 10 day apple festival. Piedmont has 52 varieties according to our friend Dario of Frutto Permesso, (the permitted fruit), the organic growers not so far from us that produce some delicious pear and apple juices.  To get into the spirit I thought I would share one of Italy's favorite recipes, Torta di Mela. This much loved cake has a number of vatiations as I have seen and tasted over the years. I grew up in apple country in southern Illinois and we had our fair share of apple festivals, apple cakes and of course the al time favorite apple pie. My mother use to made a simple apple snacking cake that was similar to the more simple versions of this Italian apple cake. Today, I'm sharing a slighty more sophisticated version, but it does come together quite easily enough, especially if you don't bother with the decorative sweep of the thinly sliced apples. It will taste just great and look more rustic.

Torta di Mele

6-8 servings -- 26cm/10" cake round


2 large eggs, room temperature for more volume
150g (5 oz / 3/4c) sugar
185g (6.5 oz / 1 7/8c) flour, sifted
120ml (4fl oz / 1/2c) milk
zest of 1/2 lemon
1 tsp baking powder
50g (3.5T) butter
23g (3T) bread crumbs, plain and stale, not too fine
1kg (2.2lb)** apples, peeled and thinly sliced, medium to sweet apples for a soft, sweet cake*
24g (2T) coarse brown  or white sugar


Preheat your oven to 180*C (350*F) and prepare you cake pan.
Prepare your pan. I use a spring form pan as I find it helpful for easy removal. You might consider lining your cake pan with parchment paper if using a regular round cake tin, to ensure your cake removes easily. I your spring form pan ring doesn't fit tight around the bottom pan, you might line it with paper.

Lightly butter your 26 cm (10 inch) pan with some of the measured butter. Cut up the remainder into small pieces and set aside.
Dust your tin with your bread crumbs and tip any excess amount out for use at some other time. 
Set aside.
Usually I peel, quarter and thinly slice my apples at this point. I try to keep the quarters intact as I thinly slice them on the cutting board, to make it easy to fan the slices out decoratively.

Beat your eggs with a mixer until frothy and light colored. 
Gradually begin to add the sugar to the eggs.
Add half of you milk to the egg and sugar mix.
Then I hand whisk in the flour, zest and baking powder.
Add the rest of the milk, handling as little as possible, yet fully incorporating the dry ingredients. 
Your mixture will be fairly runny.
Pour your batter into the pan.
Arrange your thin apple slices  around the perimeter of the pan, filling the center in as needed.
Sprinkle the coarse 2T sugar on top of the apples and dot the butter around the top.
Becasue my oven runs hot, I cover my cake with aluminum foil for the first 20- 25 minutes to keep the apple from getting too brown.
I uncover and finish baking the cake until the cake is set and golden brown, about 55 minutes, depending on your oven. 
Cool completely before removing from your pan. The spring form does allow you to be able to remove it while it is slight warm. 
I dust with a bit of confectioner sugar for a finishing touch.  
Serve at room temperature and enjoy, enjoy, enjoy.

Cooks notes: I found this online about fuji apples 
"Three medium-sized Fuji apples weigh approximately one pound.
One pound of apples, cored and sliced, measures about 4 1/2 cups."
**Update: I find that I use a lot less apples now so that the cake and apples bakes through more evenly.
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