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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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presnitzFor my Recipe-of-the-Month, I have chosen Presnitz (Trieste-Style Pastry Spiral). Named after the Slovenian Easter cake presnec, this snake-like spiral of puff pastry is filled with dried fruit, nuts, and spices. For my recipe, visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com.

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Torta DobosFor my Recipe-of-the-Month, I have chosen Torta Dobos (Layer Cake with Chocolate Buttercream and Caramel), one of many desserts made popular in Trieste during the reign of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was created by Hungarian pastry chef József Dobos for Budapest’s National General Exhibition in 1885. This recipe was adapted from the one at Pasticceria Penso. For my recipe, visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com.

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esse di RaveoFor my Recipe-of-the-Month, I have chosen Esse di Raveo (“S” Cookies), a popular cookie created in 1920 in the Carnian town of Raveo. For my recipe, visit Flavors-of-Friuli.com.

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Italo StopparI had planned on leaving for Pasticceria Penso extra early the next morning, but a restless night of sleep made rousing myself at 6:30am hopelessly unappealing. So by the time I finally dragged myself out of bed and across the street to the bakery, the day’s work was already well underway. I found the Stoppar family busily preparing all sorts of decadent sweets: jam-filled crostate (tarts), mini tartlets filled with pastry cream and fresh fruit, cream-filled puff pastry horns, and candied orange peel dipped in dark chocolate. At one end of the vast stainless steel work table sat three specially ordered sheet cakes waiting to be picked up, each garnished with strawberry slices and fluffy flourishes of whipped cream.

Antonello StopparTwo days earlier, I had arrived to witness twenty-five chocolate cakes being pulled fresh from the oven. Now it was time to transform them into sachertortes. First, Italo Stoppar sliced each cake in half, assembling the layers with a glaze of Maraschino liqueur and apricot jam. Next, his son Antonello spread the cakes with a rich chocolate ganache. The sides were then garnished with chocolate sprinkles and the word “Sacher” expertly piped on top.

But of all the indulgent treats that found their way into the bakery’s display case that morning, one in particular seemed to be calling my name: the dobostorte. Unlike the round layer cakes I had sampled in the bakeries of Vienna and Budapest, these were rectangular, made to be sold as the bite-size pastries Italians call pastine. True to the traditional style, Penso’s version consisted of five thin layers of sponge cake, each spread with a light chocolate buttercream, to which the Stoppars added their own personal touch of ground hazelnuts. Crowning the torta was a sixth layer of cake covered in a lemon-scented caramel glaze.

I found it impossible to tear myself away until I was practically forced out at 1:00pm, when the family closed up shop for their afternoon break. Since it was already late, I went to lunch at the nearby Ristorante Al Bragozzo, an upscale seafood restaurant Mike and I had been to the previous year. I ordered the zuppa di pesce (fish soup), in order to compare it to yesterday’s lunch at La Marinella. This version had a wider range of seafood—one mussel, one clam, one shrimp, and one langoustine, as well as some fish and octopus—although the broth was barely tepid. In addition, I struggled to break open the langoustine without a nutcracker. (At my recent lunch at Muggia’s Ristorante Al Lido, the shells of my scampi all buzara had been pre-cut, though still a messy challenge to extract the meat even with the provided nutcracker!)

Trieste's Cattedrale di San GiustoAfter lunch, I took a walk up the hill to Castello di San Giusto. The castle interior was closed, but I spent some time exploring the grounds outside the gate, most notably the ruins of an ancient Roman basilica. Cattedrale di San Giusto was open, so I was able to view the splendid gold mosaics in its three domed apses. A unique structure, the cathedral was created in the 14th century, when two parallel churches were joined together. I descended the hill via a winding road through the Parco della Rimembranza, a park dedicated to the memory of fallen soldiers, and then passed briefly by the Teatro Romano (Roman amphitheater) before returning to my apartment at Residence Liberty.

Torta DobosHere is my recipe for Torta Dobos, inspired by the one at Pasticceria Penso:

For the Cake:
6 eggs, separated
2/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon peel
1 cup cake or pastry flour, sifted
Pinch salt

1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Line three baking sheets with parchment paper. Trace two 8-inch circles onto each piece of paper.

2. In a large bowl, beat the egg yolks, sugar, vanilla extract, and lemon peel to the “ribbon stage,” about 5 minutes. (The batter will be pale in color and will leave a ribbon-like trail when drizzled over the surface of the batter.) Stir in the flour. 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.

3. Spread about 3/4 cup batter onto each of the six parchment paper templates. Bake until the edges are golden brown, about 10–12 minutes. Transfer the cakes, along with the parchment paper, to wire racks; cool completely before removing the paper. Choose the best-looking cake to reserve for the top layer.

For the Caramel Glaze:
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon lemon juice

1. Combine the sugar, water, and lemon juice in a small saucepan; bring to a boil over high heat. Cook until golden amber in color, about 6–8 minutes. Pour the caramel immediately over the reserved cake layer. Spread using a buttered offset spatula, scraping away any caramel that has spilled over the edges.

2. Wait a couple minutes, until the caramel has begun to solidify but is still warm to the touch. Using the blunt edge of a buttered knife, score the cake into twelve wedges. When the caramel has cooled to room temperature, cut the cake into twelve wedges using a sharp, buttered knife.

For the Buttercream Frosting:
1 cup water
1/2 cup hazelnuts
1 tablespoon baking soda
1-1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
3 cups confectioners’ sugar
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1. Preheat oven to 350°F. In a small saucepan, bring 1 cup water to a boil over high heat. Add the hazelnuts and 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.

2. Grind the toasted hazelnuts to a smooth paste in a food processor. In a large bowl, beat the hazelnut paste, butter, confectioners’ sugar, and cocoa powder until soft and fluffy.

3. Spread a thin layer of frosting over each of the remaining cakes, stacking to assemble the five layers. Spread additional frosting around the sides of the cake; use any extra to decorate as desired. Place the caramel-glazed wedges on top of the cake.

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pastries at Trieste's Pasticceria PensoAs usual, I began this day with a visit to Pasticceria Penso. When I arrived, the patriarch of the family, Italo Stoppar, was busy preparing a number of cream-filled treats. Most involved slices of sponge cake placed inside rounded molds, which were then filled with chocolate, vanilla, and/or cherry pastry cream. Once unmolded, the pastries were then glazed with chocolate ganache or else covered with whipped cream and chopped walnuts. Slices often revealed a maraschino cherry tucked in the center.

apple strudel at Trieste's Pasticceria PensoAcross the giant stainless steel table, Italo’s sons Antonello and Lorenzo were baking a batch of apple strudel. While Austrian strudels are traditionally rolled up jellyroll-style in a paper-thin dough, I found puff pastry to be just as common in Friuli. The brothers added raisins, pine nuts, candied orange peel, and rum to the mix of chopped apples, along with some crushed savoiardi (ladyfingers) to soak up the sweet juices. After wrapping a rectangle of puff pastry around the filling, they decoratively arranged a strip of dough lengthwise down the center.

We all chatted for several hours, as I jotted down notes about the family’s recipes. Antonello gave me a couple of magazines to borrow, each with an article featuring Penso. By the time I was ready to leave, just before noon, the strudels had cooled enough for me to take a slice home for dessert.

From the bakery, I walked to Piazza Oberdan to catch bus #6 to Ristorante La Marinella, located north of Trieste between the seaside towns of Barcola and Grignano. Not knowing exactly where along the Viale Miramare the restaurant was located, I got off much too early. However, with the mid-October sun beaming down a soothing warmth and the light, salty breeze caressing my face, it turned out to be a very pleasant half-hour walk.

La Marinella had been recommended to me by Joško Sirk, owner of the now Michelin-starred La Subida in Cormòns, who declared it to be his favorite place for seafood in the region. As I entered, I spotted a prominently displayed photograph of the Pope shaking hands with a man I gathered to be the owner. I was surprised to find the dining room empty, save for one Austrian couple with a young child—but then it was getting rather late for lunch by the time I had finally arrived. A waiter, smartly dressed in a red jacket and bow tie, led me to a window table, where I could gaze across the busy highway toward the sea.

To start, I ordered the frutti di mare gratinati appetizer: a plate of scallops and razor clams baked with a bread crumb topping. Next, I had the zuppa di pesce (fish soup). Unlike many versions I have since tried, this one contained only fish, no shellfish or calamari. Slices of crostini were served on the side to soak up the savory tomato broth.

Trieste's Faro della VittoriaAfter lunch, I strolled back along the waterfront into Barcola, where I caught the next bus back to Trieste. It was such a beautiful day that I took a little detour on my way home, passing by the Jewish Synagogue, one of the largest in Europe. When I finally reached Residence Liberty, it was already late afternoon. I spent some time reading through Antonello’s magazines, prepared some mashed potatoes to accompany my improvised dinner of bread, cheese, eggs, and salad, and cozied up to watch an episode of “Alias” on my computer—with my slice of apple strudel for dessert!

Here is my recipe for apple strudel, adapted from the one given to me by Pasticceria Penso:

apple strudel3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, divided and softened
1/4 cup cold water
• • •
3 medium apples (about 1-1/4 pounds), peeled, cored, and cut into 1/4-inch pieces
1/2 cup finely crushed biscotti, amaretti, or savoiardi cookies
1/4 cup raisins
1/4 cup diced candied orange peel
1/4 cup pine nuts
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon rum
1 tablespoon butter, melted
1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon peel
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• • •
1 egg, beaten to blend

For the Puff Pastry Dough:
In a large bowl, combine the flour and salt. Cut 2 tablespoons butter into cubes; blend into the flour mixture. Add 1/4 cup cold water; mix until crumbly. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface and knead briefly. Flatten the dough to a 1/2-inch-thick disk. Wrap in plastic wrap; refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Unwrap the dough and place on a lightly floured surface; roll to a 7-inch square. Roll the corners of the square away from the center to form four flaps, leaving a 3-inch square in the center at the original thickness. Beat the remaining 6 tablespoons butter with a rolling pin to form a 3-inch square; place in the center of the dough. Fold the flaps over to enclose the butter; turn the dough folded-side down. Roll to a 6- by 9-inch rectangle; fold in thirds (like a letter). Rotate the dough 90°. Roll again to a 6- by 9-inch rectangle; fold in thirds again. (This completes two “turns.”) Wrap in plastic wrap; refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Repeat rolling and folding the dough for two more turns. Wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Repeat rolling and folding the dough for two final turns. (This completes a total of six turns.) Wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour before using.

For the Filling:
In a large bowl, combine the apples, crushed biscotti, raisins, candied orange peel, pine nuts, sugar, rum, melted butter, lemon peel, and cinnamon.

To Prepare:
Preheat oven to 400°F. On a lightly floured surface, roll the puff pastry dough to a 12- by 15-inch rectangle. Transfer the dough to a large sheet of parchment paper. Brush the surface of the dough with beaten egg. Spread the filling lengthwise along the center of the dough. Wrap the dough around the filling, tightly sealing all seams; carefully turn the strudel seam-side down. Transfer the strudel, along with the parchment paper, to a baking sheet. Brush the surface of the dough with beaten egg. Bake until golden brown, about 25–30 minutes.

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