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For my Recipe-of-the-Month, I have chosen Torta Sacher (Chocolate Cake with Apricot Glaze and Ganache). While this rich, decadent cake may be found throughout much of northeastern Italy, it is considered a local dessert in Trieste due to the city’s Austrian heritage. My version is based on Pasticceria Penso’s recipe, which adds ground hazelnuts to the cake batter and Maraschino liqueur to the glaze. Visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com for the recipe.

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With no more day trips planned, I allowed myself the luxury of sleeping in until 8:00am. While brushing my teeth that morning, I was startled by a loud ringing—presumably the doorbell. I had also heard the buzzer the night before while taking a shower, which struck me as odd since I knew no one in Trieste except my friends at Pasticceria Penso and I was certainly not expecting any visitors. Just outside my bathroom door, the security system’s video screen showed Antonello Stoppar waiting downstairs outside the apartment building. I studied the keypad, which consisted of a bunch of blank buttons with no instructions. Before I could figure out how to buzz him in or use the intercom to speak to him, the screen went black.

Within minutes, my phone rang. Antonello had been let inside and was calling me from the reception desk. He explained that he had come by the previous morning and left a note (which I never got) as well as the night before, to let me know that they would be baking putizza today, a day earlier than anticipated. Antonello knew that I had been looking forward to watching them prepare this local specialty, and I had been deeply disappointed when the event was postponed the previous week.

Around an hour later, I crossed the street from my apartment to Pasticceria Penso. The dough had already been prepared and portioned out into large, pillowy balls. Antonello was nearly finished making the filling, a sticky mixture of walnuts, hazelnuts, pine nuts, candied orange peel, raisins soaked in rum and Marsala wine, melted chocolate, crumbled sponge cake, sugar, honey, lemon and orange zest, cinnamon, and vanilla.

I hung around until noon, watching the Stoppar family work their magic. First, the dough was rolled into large ovals and the filling spread on, leaving a small border around the edge. They let me roll one up, jellyroll-style, and then spiral it like a snail shell into a round cake. Just like the day they had allowed me to brush egg wash on a presnitz, everyone seemed somewhat surprised at my competency in the kitchen! I would have loved the chance to continue helping, but since they didn’t ask me to assist further, I contented myself to return to my perch in the corner.

When I was ready to leave for lunch, Antonello zipped to the front of the shop and wrapped up a little packet containing two of my favorite pastries, sachertorte and dobostorte. He also gave me the address of a restaurant he liked, suggesting that I try it for lunch.

Trattoria Da Mario was supposed to be at the southern end of Trieste’s waterfront, but even after scouring the street three times, I was unable to find it. So I backtracked to a restaurant I had passed called Osteria Istriano, one that had caught my eye the week before, with its waterfront location and seafood-heavy menu.

As was the case so often on this trip, I was the only diner there, yet the laid-back atmosphere made me feel instantly at ease. There were no stuffy waiters in tuxedos or fancy linen tablecloths or fine china engraved with the restaurant’s name. Instead, rustic wooden tables were laid with straw placemats, and the lone server was dressed casually in jeans and a t-shirt.

There was no written menu, so after listening to the day’s offerings, I ordered as an antipasto the carpaccio di branzino: paper-thin slices of raw sea bass served over a bed of arugula, with pink peppercorns, cherry tomatoes, and a light lemon and olive oil dressing. During one of our conversations at the bakery, I had asked Antonello if there was any sushi in Trieste. He replied that carpaccio di branzino was the closest thing to sushi here and that the dish had become quite trendy. (Now, over ten years later, Trieste is home to quite a few sushi restaurants!)

For my main course, I had the grigliata mista di pesce, a plate of grilled seafood that consisted of baby calamari, a couple of larger calamari, and some sardoni barcolani (not sardines, as I once thought, but the tinier species of European anchovy). All the calamari were exceedingly tender, the babies being particularly infused with the deep, charred flavors of the grill. By comparison, the sardoni were a tad bland, not to mention filled with bones, but they were still thoroughly satisfying. I also ordered the only side dish available, strips of sautéed zucchini. And I mustn’t forget to mention the savory onion-topped focaccia in the bread basket, a happy departure from the usual slices of plain white baguette.

All in all, it was an extremely tasty lunch, definitely one of my better choices. Unlike many regional meals that tended to be heavy on meat, cheese, beans, and potatoes, the seafood here was light yet flavor-packed, perhaps more a reflection of modern Triestine cuisine than that of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire.

When I was done, my check came to €21,30. I pulled out a €20 note and was in the process of digging through my coin purse for the remaining €1,30, when the waiter simply took the €20, saying that that was enough. I remember thinking it was awfully kind of him, though perhaps he was just in a hurry to tend to some other customers who had just arrived.

After lunch, I spent a relaxing afternoon in my apartment, writing a piece on Pasticceria Penso for my book Flavors of Friuli. Once I got into the groove, I worked for two hours straight, without even once checking the clock. Then I spent another hour transcribing notes for some other sections of my book. I was so glad to have brought my laptop along!

I still had yet to go to the market, so dinner was another meager one: a scrambled egg and the last of my cheese. At least I had the dobos and sacher cakes for dessert!

Although Antonello did give me Penso’s recipe for putizza, I eventually chose to recreate the one from Pasticceria Bomboniera. Both are scrumptious, but I especially love the chunks of dark chocolate in Bomboniera’s. Here is my recipe:

Filling:
1 cup golden raisins
1/4 cup rum
1-1/2 cups coarsely chopped walnuts
3 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup finely crushed biscotti or amaretti cookies
3 tablespoons honey
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated lemon peel
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 egg whites

Place the raisins in a large bowl; add the rum and let soak for 30 minutes. Finely grind the walnuts in a food processor; add to the bowl of raisins. Stir in the chocolate, sugar, crushed biscotti, honey, lemon peel, cinnamon, and egg whites.

Dough:
1-1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
3 tablespoons sugar, divided
1/3 cup warm whole milk (100° to 110°F)
1-1/3 cups cake or pastry flour, divided
2 egg yolks
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 tablespoon rum
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated lemon peel

In a small bowl, dissolve the yeast and a pinch of sugar in the warm milk. Let rest until foamy, about 10 minutes. Whisk in 1/3 cup flour. Cover and let rise for 30 minutes.

Transfer the mixture to a large bowl. Stir in 1/2 cup flour, 1 tablespoon sugar, and the egg yolks. Cover and let rise for 1 hour.

Stir in the remaining flour and sugar, melted butter, rum, vanilla extract, salt, and lemon peel. Using a mixer with a dough hook attachment, knead for 10 minutes. (It may be necessary to occasionally scrape the ball of dough off the hook.) Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface; knead briefly by hand. (The dough should be smooth, elastic, and very soft.) Form the dough into a ball; cover loosely with plastic wrap or a kitchen towel and let rise for 1 hour.

To prepare:
1 egg, beaten to blend

Preheat oven to 350°F, placing a pan filled with water on the bottom rack to create steam. On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough to an 11- by 17-inch oval. Spread the filling over the dough, leaving a 1-1/2-inch border on all sides. Starting with one long side of the oval, roll up jelly roll style. Form the roll into a spiral, seam-side down; transfer to a greased 8-inch round cake pan. Cover loosely with plastic wrap or a kitchen towel and let rise for 30 minutes. Brush the top of the spiral with beaten egg. Bake until golden brown, about 45 minutes. Cool 10 minutes before removing from the pan.

First three photos courtesy of Pasticceria Penso.

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For my Recipe-of-the-Month, I have chosen Pane di Zucca (Butternut Squash Bread), in honor of Venzone’s Festa della Zucca. This bread is one of numerous baked goods featured at the festival, celebrated in the medieval-walled town every October. Visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com for the recipe.

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torta di meleFor my Recipe-of-the-Month, I have chosen Torta di Mele (Apple Cake), in honor of the Festa della Mela, celebrated in the town of Tolmezzo every September. Visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com for the recipe.

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For my Recipe-of-the-Month, I have chosen Crostata alla Marmellata (Mixed Berry Jam Tart), in honor of Forni Avoltri’s Festa dei Frutti di Bosco. The dessert table at the festival showcases many cakes and tarts made with wild berries from the surrounding forests—this jam tart is one of my favorites. For my recipe, visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com.

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On the day of Venzone’s Festa della Zucca, I made my way to the train station in Trieste with some degree of trepidation. The last time I had visited Venzone, I had been stranded during a transportation strike. At the end of an interminable afternoon of waiting at the station for trains that never showed up, I had managed to catch the last bus of the day back to Udine. Fortunately, on this particular day when thousands of people would be heading to Venzone, I learned that extra trains would be added to the schedule.

I changed trains in Udine and arrived in Venzone around 1:00pm. The streets within the medieval-walled village were packed beyond capacity. Townspeople dressed in medieval costumes roamed the streets. Walls of visitors blocked the narrow alleys, watching groups of jugglers and other performers. In addition to the usual vendors selling local craft items, a display of medieval weaponry attracted the attention of passersby. I was too short to see much over the crowds, so I wove my way to the piazza where many varieties of squash were on display. Prizes would be given out later in the day for the largest, heaviest, longest, most beautiful, and most unusual.

I was especially drawn to the works of pumpkin art, including a crocodile carved from a long squash and a mosaic of Venzone’s cathedral using bits of multi-colored rind. My favorites were the intricate floral carvings. Mesmerized, I watched a couple of chefs demonstrate their skill on a gigantic pumpkin that must have weighed hundreds of pounds.

Anticipating plenty of street food, I hadn’t eaten any lunch beforehand. I ended up ignoring all the savory food stands, making a meal of nothing but dessert samples. I wanted to include in my cookbook Flavors of Friuli: A Culinary Journey through Northeastern Italy some type of torta di zucca (pumpkin cake), but I had yet to settle on a recipe. I hoped to finally come to a decision today at the festival.

Most desserts were being sold in bite-size samples for €1 apiece. I tried several pumpkin cakes, all variations on the same ordinary yellow cake, some with raisins, others plain. Most were slices of what was labeled plumcake di zucca, though one was baked in cupcake form. There were more tarts than cakes on offer—tiny, round crostate as well as rectangles with a lattice crust—and even more varieties of bread and focaccia. In addition, I saw pumpkin strudel, krapfen (cream-filled doughnuts), and biscotti.

As I was filling up on these desserts, I was tempted by a sign for frico con la zucca (cheese and squash pancake), but the line wrapped all the way around the building. I just didn’t have the patience to wait. I’ve never really been one for crowds. The noise, being jostled by strangers, feeling trapped amid the chaos—it always made me long to escape.

Venzone is a remarkably tiny town, and so, despite the throngs of visitors, I was able to navigate the entire festival in an hour and a half. On my way back to the train station on the other side of the highway, I passed a couple of kids selling homemade cakes, tarts, and cookies outside their home. For €0.50 they gave me two pieces of torta di zucca.

On the train ride back to Trieste, my pumpkin dilemma suddenly became crystal clear. Instead of a recipe for pumpkin cake, I would recreate a version of pane di zucca that I had seen in abundance at the festival: braided loaves of pumpkin bread with raisins and walnuts. Here is that recipe:

1 small butternut squash (about 1 to 1-1/2 pounds), halved lengthwise
1 package active dry yeast (2-1/4 teaspoons or 1/4 ounce)
1/4 cup sugar, divided
1/2 cup warm water (100° to 110°F)
2 eggs
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 teaspoon salt
3-3/4 cups all-purpose or bread flour
1/3 cup raisins
1/3 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
• • •
1 egg, beaten to blend

1. Preheat oven to 375°F. Place the squash halves on a baking sheet. Bake until tender, about 40–45 minutes. When the squash is cool enough to handle, remove and discard the seeds and membrane. Scoop out enough flesh to measure 1 cup. (Reserve any extra for another use.) Place in a small bowl; mash well. Cool to room temperature.

2. In a large bowl, dissolve the yeast and a pinch of sugar in 1/2 cup warm water. Let rest until foamy, about 10 minutes. Whisk in the remaining sugar, mashed squash, eggs, melted butter, and salt. Gradually stir in the flour until the dough forms a solid mass; stir in the raisins and walnuts. Using a mixer with a dough hook attachment, knead for 10 minutes. (It may be necessary to occasionally scrape the ball of dough off the hook.) Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface; knead briefly by hand. (The dough should be smooth and elastic.) Form the dough into a ball; cover loosely with plastic wrap or a kitchen towel and let rise until doubled in size, about 1-1/2 hours.

3. On a lightly floured surface, divide the dough into six equal sections; roll each into a 12-inch-long rope. Form three ropes into a braid, tucking under the loose ends; repeat with the remaining three ropes. Place the braided loaves on a baking sheet. Cover loosely with plastic wrap or a kitchen towel and let rise for 30 minutes.

4. Preheat oven to 350°F, placing a pan filled with water on the bottom rack to create steam. Brush the two loaves with beaten egg. Bake until golden brown, about 30–35 minutes.

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For my Recipe-of-the-Month, I have chosen Gubana delle Valli del Natisone (Dried Fruit and Nut Spiral Cake), a dessert from the Natisone Valley that was originally prepared for special holidays such as Easter. For my recipe, visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com.

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