Archive for June, 2011

Flavors of Friuli: A Culinary Journey through Northeastern Italy has just been awarded a bronze medal in the “Cooking” category of ForeWord Review’s 2010 Book of the Year Awards.

Other awards:
2011 Eric Hoffer Book Award, first runner-up
2011 Bay Area Independent Publishers Association (BAIPA) Book Awards, “Best Cookbook”
2010 Independent Publisher Book Awards, bronze medal
2010 Living Now Book Awards, silver medal

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It was a blustery February morning, and I had returned to Pasticceria Penso, one of Trieste’s oldest bakeries, to inquire about some local dessert recipes. Several days prior, I had peeked in the shop, but it had quickly grown too busy for me to disturb the clerk, Silvana, with my questions. This time, perhaps the weather had deterred the crowds, for I was greeted graciously by Rosanna, the matriarch of the family. She offered me a freshly baked napoletana (puff pastry filled with pastry cream) and whisked me behind the counter and into the kitchen, where her husband (and the bakery’s owner), Italo Stoppar, and his two sons, Antonello and Lorenzo, had just pulled a couple dozen chocolate cakes out of the oven.

Italo explained that they were making torta Sacher (called sachertorte in German). Like dobostorte, kugelhupf, and apple strudel, sachertorte is one of the fancy Viennese desserts to find its way into Friuli, by way of the region’s Austrian heritage. The cake was created in 1832 by Franz Sacher, cook and pastry chef for the Austrian prince Klemens von Metternich. In 1876, the chef’s son Eduard founded Vienna’s elegant Hotel Sacher and has ensured that the family recipe be kept a guarded secret.

When the cakes had cooled sufficiently, Italo proceeded to slice them into two layers and trim off the rough edges. A huge bucket caught all the chocolate trimmings, and it was all I could do to keep myself from sneaking a handful. The next step was to douse the cakes with Maraschino liqueur (a trick that I later found not only gave the cake extra flavor but kept it nice and moist) and slather on the apricot jam. Finally, Antonello assembled the layers and glazed the cakes with a rich chocolate ganache, while Italo decorated the sides with chocolate sprinkles and piped the word “Sacher” on top. I was in chocolate heaven!

Before I said good-bye, the Stoppars lavished me with all sorts of treats: a whole presnitz (dried fruit and nut puff pastry spiral), pinza (sweet, round, brioche-like loaf), a slice of torta Sacher, and a promise to send me all the recipes that I had requested. Here is their version of torta Sacher:

1/3 cup hazelnuts, skinned and toasted (see toasting instructions below)
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
5 eggs, separated
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup cake or pastry flour, sifted
1/2 cup Dutch-process cocoa powder, sifted
Pinch salt
• • •
Apricot Glaze:
1/4 cup Maraschino liqueur
2/3 cup apricot jam
• • •
Chocolate Ganache:
4 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
• • •
Chocolate sprinkles (optional)

Toasting the Hazelnuts:
Preheat oven to 350°F. In a small saucepan, bring 1 cup water to a boil over high heat. Add 1/3 cup hazelnuts and 1 tablespoon baking soda; cook for 5 minutes. Remove the hazelnuts and place in a colander under cold running water; rub off and discard the skins. Transfer the skinned hazelnuts to a baking dish; toast until golden brown, about 15 minutes. Cool completely before using.

For the cake:
Preheat oven to 325°F. Finely grind the toasted hazelnuts in a food processor.

In a large bowl, beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg yolks, one at a time, adding the vanilla extract with the last yolk; beat the mixture until thick and pale in color, about 5 minutes. Stir in the flour, cocoa powder, and ground hazelnuts. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt until they form stiff peaks. Soften the batter by stirring in a little egg white; fold in the remaining egg whites.

Pour the batter into a greased and floured 8-inch round cake pan. Bake until a wooden pick inserted near the center comes out clean, about 45 minutes. Cool 15 minutes before removing from the pan; cool completely before glazing.

For the glaze:
Slice the cake in half horizontally; shave a thin slice off the top layer to create a smooth surface. (Any air pockets may be filled in with the shaved-off pieces of cake.) Brush the Maraschino liqueur over the top and sides of both cake layers; repeat with the apricot jam. Stack the two cake layers on a wire rack.

For the ganache:
Melt the chocolate with the cream in a double boiler, stirring until smooth. Pour the ganache over the top and sides of the cake. Decorate the sides of the cake with sprinkles, if desired. Using a large spatula, transfer the cake to a serving plate; refrigerate until the ganache has set.

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I had arrived in Trieste to begin the research for my book Flavors of Friuli. Being particularly interested in the city’s local foods, I set out first thing in the morning for the waterfront, to what was labeled on my map as the Pescheria, or “fish market.” What the guidebook had failed to mention, however, was that the immense, brick structure had long ago been converted into an exhibition hall. The side of the building nearest its clock tower also contained the city’s aquarium.

Having previously visited aquariums in Milan and on the island of Elba, I felt compelled to see what Trieste’s had to offer. I should mention first that I live in San Francisco, just a couple hours from the world-class Monterey Bay Aquarium—so I was clearly destined for disappointment. The first floor held a pair of lonely penguins, a coral reef tank with two brightly colored fish, and an octagonal tank with some sharks and rays. Upstairs housed the reptiles and amphibians, but it seemed that all the snakes and lizards were asleep. The only active creature was a snapping turtle that had been confiscated as an illegal pet—its shell had sadly been deformed from malnutrition.

When I left the aquarium, the sun had finally come out, and although the air was still frosty, I felt invigorated sitting in the vast Piazza dell’Unità d’Italia. For the first time, I was able to admire the sun reflecting off the brilliant gold mosaics on the Palazzo del Governo. It was still too early for lunch, but I decided to do some “recon” work, scoping out the countless restaurants on my list. Most were still closed, but I studied the menus that they typically post outside the door. Around 11:30 I came across one spot that was already open, Buffet Da Gildo. The menu outside listed gnocchi di susine (plum-filled gnocchi) and goulasch (Hungarian-style beef stew)—two of the dishes on my “to try” list. Unfortunately, there was no menu inside. The waitress quickly rattled off a couple choices: one soup and one pasta. I ordered jota, a soup prepared with beans, potatoes, and sauerkraut that is considered one of Trieste’s native dishes.

Later, I stopped by Pasticceria Bomboniera, one of Trieste’s oldest bakeries (Pasticceria Penso, which I had visited the previous day, and Pasticceria Pirona are the others). I was still curious to taste the city’s three signature desserts—presnitz, putizza, and pinza—but I soon gathered that they are not typically sold by the slice. So in the spirit of research, I bought one of each and returned to my hotel room for a decadent midafternoon tasting. The presnitz was a puff pastry spiral filled with dried fruit and nuts, practically indistinguishable from gubana Cividalese. The pinza was a plain, sweet, round loaf, rather like brioche or challah, with a decoratively scored top. The putizza turned out to be my favorite—similar to the dried fruit and nut spiral cake called gubana delle Valli del Natisone but with two distinct differences: a much greater filling-to-dough ratio and, most importantly, it also contained chunks of dark chocolate. On a subsequent trip, I was able to acquire the bakery’s recipe, which was the inspiration for my version in Flavors of Friuli.

For dinner that evening, I chose Ristorante Al Granzo. As their personalized tableware affirmed, the restaurant has been in business since 1923. For my appetizer, I ordered granzievola alla Triestina (crabmeat cooked with garlic, parsley, and olive oil). Granzievola translates as “spiny spider crab,” and it is typically served in its shell. Anticipating that I would eventually need to shoot photos of all my recipes, I asked the waiter if he would wrap up the shell for me to take home. At first he was reluctant (I think the restaurant preferred to reuse their shells), but he agreed after I explained about my project. Was it my imagination or did I see the kitchen staff peer out at me and snicker?

The meal concluded with an uninspiring portion of homemade panzerotti al salmone (salmon-stuffed pasta in cream sauce) and a side of boiled spinach. The complimentary glass of prosecco was a welcome touch, but overall I found Al Granzo to be a bit stuffy. It didn’t help that I was the only guest in the dining room for my entire meal.

That evening, back in my hotel room, it was a nice surprise to discover the Valentine’s Day card my boyfriend (now husband) had hidden in the bottom of my suitcase!

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