Food, says Jessica Theroux, is part of our past, our present and our future. Her debut cookbook, Cooking With Italian Grandmothers, is a testament to this philosophy and to Italy’s famed food culture.
Today she’s here to tell us about the women she profiled and share a recipe she enjoyed in their care.
We’re excited that Welcome Books is offering Eatsy readers a 10% discount on her book. If you’re interested in buying a copy for yourself, take advantage of the offer by going to Welcomebooks.com and typing in the promo code: EATSY.
Over the course of a year, twelve Italian grandmothers taught me about the relationship between slow food and culture. Each, with an individual style and approach, left an impression on me that has lasted well beyond our time in the kitchen.
Carluccia, pictured here by her field of beans, taught me that a simple pot of shelling beans demands all sorts of considerations. She’d ask: Where are we in the season? Is the water hard or soft? Has the weather been damp or dry? Sunny or cold? Beans cook less evenly in water with high mineral content, and cooking time depends on how dry they are in the pod. Good cooking, good crafting, requires such considerations.
From Irene I understood that to master a dish you must understand it. While preparing her famed bagna cauda, pictured at right, she explained that its roots lie in the Ligurian-Piedmontese trade routes by which salt and anchovies were brought from the Ligurian coast to Langhe. Her bagna cauda, honest and unflinching, tasted of this journey. Understanding a dish’s history is essential, she explained.
Shortcuts had no place in the homes I entered during my pilgrimage. Each grandmother cooked for the love of food and feeding. Their approach was attentive and laborious. Raffaela’s ancient sourdough starter made glorious bread (pictured at top). She fed it daily and tended to it in her spare time. The resulting loaves, chewy, crunchy, airy, are the best I’ve had.
Nona Usha’s fluffy apple cake is baked from memory and intuition.
The women profiled in my book are keepers of Italy’s rich culinary traditions. In their hands, food became a gentle language that communicated love, place, work, generosity and identity. Cooking With Italian Grandmothers is a testament to them and the culinary traditions they maintain.
Armida’s Pinnolata (Pine Nut Biscuit Cake)
One homesick afternoon, I stopped by Armida’s house to sit with her quietly on the kitchen sofa. I told her I felt far from home and she drew me close. After a long period of silence she hoisted herself up out of the sofa and began fumbling around in cupboards for ingredients. She thought that her favorite dessert, a simple biscuit cake filled with pine nuts and lemon zest, was all I needed. She was right.
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened
1/3 cup sugar
2 teaspoons lemon zest
1/4 teaspoon finely chopped fresh rosemary
2 egg yolks
Pinch of salt
1 1/4 cups flour
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons lightly toasted pine nuts
1 egg white, for glazing the cake
1 tablespoon sugar, for cake top
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and butter a 9-inch cake pan.
Cream together the soft butter and sugar. Then mix in the lemon zest, chopped rosemary, 2 egg yolks, and pinch of salt. Stir in the flour and ½ cup of the pine nuts. At a certain point, you may need to use your hands to form a coherent dough. Using your knuckles, press the dough into the cake pan to make a rough dough of even thickness. Cover closely with plastic wrap, and let the dough rest for at least half an hour and up to 24 hours.
Just before baking, sprinkle the dough with the remaining 2 tablespoons of pine nuts, brush with the egg white, and sprinkle with the tablespoon of sugar.
Bake the Pinnolata for 40 to 50 minutes, until the thin cake has turned a light nutty brown and is pulling away from the edges of the pan. Set aside to cool.
To serve, slice into thin wedges.