The Christmas season invariably starts with some baking in an Italian household. Mine is no different. I’ve been on the lookout for a recipe that somewhat resembles a “torrone” that my grandfather used to make for Christmas. In his basement kitchen he would mix up all sorts of ingredients and while we were never quite sure of the recipe, it always tasted good. After some trial and error, my mother and I discovered this recipe is a base of what my grandfather was cooking up. I imagine he also added some cinnamon and maybe even chocolate when he got creative but this is a pretty good start.
It isn’t your typical torrone you pick up at the store: a white nougat framed with wafers. It’s a homemade kind typical of southern Italy including Calabria and Sicily that is dark and more like a brittle. (“You know we were short on eggs back then,” is my mother’s explanation. You need eggs to make the nougat type which my grandmother always told me were traded for other needed food staples.)
Try it with hazelnuts or peanuts or even sesame seeds as a filler. Since it’s a type of candy, North American recipes would tell you that you need a candy thermometer. That may be true, but I’ve never seen a Nonno or a Nonna use one. If they can get the feel down for this recipe, so can you and I.
300 grams almonds (lightly toasted). Use 150 grams whole and 150 grams chopped in half.
220 grams of sugar plus extra for coating
3 tablespoons of honey
100 grams unsalted butter
Amid shelves of cookbooks and piles of recipe magazines, my mother’s house holds a small worn notebook full of recipes. The pages are torn, stained and layered with scraps of paper (usually the back of envelopes) that have recipes scribbled in ink or pencil. Sometimes there are instructions and no measurements. Sometimes ingredients and no baking instructions.
Sorting out what cookies get baked for Christmas is less about going through her recipe list and choosing and more about remembering. “Those ones with the nuts on top.” “The round ones that Comare brought over.” “Dad’s favourite.” Proper names for cookies are useless, we all just associate them with people, places or times anyway. This little biscotti recipe lives on a scrap of paper with the simple heading: Zia’s Biscotti.
Zia, meaning Aunt, could mean, well, anyone in the family or extended family. It doesn’t matter though, they came from family and have always been a staple. These biscotti are light and crumbly. I’ve tried several recipes from various books (versions with harder dough I find too dense, those made with butter seem to taste overwhelmingly of butter) but keep coming back to these ones for their simplicity and their texture. You can swap out the almonds for different nuts or other ingredients like chocolate chunks or cranberries, or even add cocoa to the dough for a chocolate version. It’s a great base that’s easily adapted.
Anyway you make them though, these biscotti are classic, just the memories we all hold dear of our family and favourite cookies.
6 large eggs
zest of one lemon
1 teaspoon vanilla
Merry Christmas, Buon Natale! With one month to Christmas Day, it’s time for the gift giving to begin.
Last year for the Christmas season I featured two classic holiday recipes on the blog: colluri and turdilli. This year more recipes are on their way, but I wanted to offer you, my readers, a special gift.
So here’s my holiday “thank you” to all of you that visit, read and share An Italian-Canadian Life. I’ve created three unique Italian ecards that you can send to your nearest and dearest, giving them a “taste” of the best of Italian Christmas foods. Send an ecard now
All Italians receive at least one or two panettones at Christmas (it’s a sweet cake-like bread). So now, you can send one virtually too! Maybe you’ll send it to someone you won’t be able to see this year, or send it to someone who hates getting their fourth or fifth panettone – just for fun.
You can also send my favourite holiday food gift of all: a virtual cookie tray. Complete with amaretti cookies, peach pastries and cornetti, everyone loves getting a traditional Italian cookie tray to munch on through the season.
So Merry Christmas/Buon Natale readers! Share the Italian foodie love!
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In the basement there’s a treasure. No matter how much I despised trekking into the basement to fetch something for my mother, the truth was that a trip to the cantina (cellar) meant stepping into a magical room full of our favourite foods and a year’s (or more!) worth of work. Yellow lupini beans, red crushed tomatoes, brown mushrooms, all gleaming from behind their glass homes. One of our favourite cantina inhabitants was, and is, olives.
Calabrese cracked olives, named as such because of the way they are cracked (smashed, really) open, were always a staple in my house growing up. Served as a snack with soppresata, cheese, taralli and other antipasti, we stocked up on jars of this green gold in the cantina. The recipe for preserving olives is held mainly in the minds of older Italians, much like the recipe for preserving green tomatoes I shared here previously. You can find recipes online with a similar name, but they are often written in Italian and not quite the same.
In North America, green olives are picked at the end of September to about the middle of November. In Europe, the harvest is a bit later and into the winter. Preserving olives is another one of those food events that calls for a big gathering of family if you are going to make a lot, just like making sausages or canning tomatoes. Part social event, part necessity, Italian food preservation has always been an integral part of life for southern Italians. These days, the family gathering part is more important than the preserving, but the results – good food and some fun – are the same.
Some tips for this recipe: you’ll need some time and some patience, smashing the olives can get messy and don’t let the olives get brown or mushy at any point, then they’ll lose their taste and allure. Finally, be sure to add these to your pantry or cantina collection, for olive lovers this is a great way to have a fresh olive taste all year around.
Calabrese Cracked Olives (Olive Schiacciate)
1 case green olives
1 lb salt (1 box)
2-3 tbsp dried oregano
2-3 tbsp dried basil
1 tbsp granulated garlic
hot pepper flakes to taste
Select a case of olives where the fruits are still firm and are a medium-large. If the olives are very fresh, you may need to allow them to sit for a few days in a cool place such as a cantina or garage. The olives are ready to process when they break open easily with a bit of pressure.
Some things change and some things always stay the same. Right around when the holidays approach I think of how much has changed in my family over the years and yet how many things, like Italian traditions, stay the same no matter how we progress. From the Christmas Eve seafood feast to planning visits to relatives, the holidays are now in full swing. I’ve already started my Christmas baking with my favourite recipes from when I was young and this year, I have to try out a few of my mom’s tried and true (and difficult) Italian treats.
With food, as with heritage, I’m a fan of pieces of Italy found right here in Canada. Today, it’s this beautiful vintage Italian postcard from 1906, found at a paper show just north of Toronto, that I’m loving and sharing with you. A reproduction of a painting, the postcard depicts Rio Van Axel in Venice as seen in the late 1800s. Those greenish-blue colours are my favourite tones and I love the serenity of the image. How much as Venice changed since 1906? As much as the Italian focus on family, food and tradition has: very little.
Well, you judge for yourself. Here’s a photo of modern-day Rio Van Axel…
(look carefully though…might it be that the water is higher? Venice, get those floodgates working!)
If you follow this blog regularly you know that I love posting traditional recipes from my family. A lot of people enjoy these recipes just as much as I do, especially for those who swear by the Mediterranean diet, but I often get questions about “tweaking” the recipe for the extra health-conscious: can I bake instead of fry? Can I replace all-purpose flour with whole wheat? Can I reduce the sugar?
I ask readers to let me know, if they give the recipe a twist, how it works out. One of my more popular posts on this blog is spelt pasta, which started as an experiment in my own kitchen. Today I’m asking you how you’ve adapted traditional dishes to meet dietary needs for a chance to win a new cookbook! (keep reading….)
The thing with traditional recipes is that they don’t change much. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done though. Recently, Fina Scroppo, an editor and writer, shared her new book with me “The Healthy Italian: cooking for the love of food and family,” a cookbook that puts alternative spins on Italian classics. I’ll admit, I may have been a bit skeptical (can you really put quinoa in eggplant parmesan?), but the only way to really know if these new recipes work, is to try them.
One of Fina’s recipes immediately spoke to me: farro risotto. First, it uses a whole grain (farro) which draws in a lot of questions from readers each time I write about it (and I’ve become a bit obsessed about myself). Secondly, it’s made creamy not by the starch typically found in the classic risotto arborio rice, but from goat cheese, which is one of my favourite ingredients. Fina tells the story about how her family had to find alternatives to Italian recipes when her sister was diagnosed with celiac disease. For me, I had to make two more little adjustments: the original recipe called for asparagus which is not seasonal right now (a big part of Italian eating), so I used squash instead and I used whole grain farro instead of semi-pearled as I don’t mind the extra chewiness. If you are new to farro, or prefer the consistency of rice, use the semi-pearled type.
The result was a creamy, extremely tasty dish that offered no guilt after you devour the whole bowl full. Enjoy the recipe – and if you want to try Fina’s recipes yourself, here’s your chance: Enter to win “The Healthy Italian: cooking for the love of food and family,” by telling me how you’ve adapted a traditional family recipe for dietary or health reasons in the comments. A winner will be selected at random at midnight on November 22. Good luck!
Farro Risotto (from “The Healthy Italian”)
2 cups butternut squash, cubed
3 1/2 cubes reduced-sodium vegetable or chicken broth
2 tsp extra-virgin olive oil
2 tsp light butter
1 onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 1/2 cups semi-pearl farro (spelt grain, also called emmer)
1/2 cup white wine
2 tbsp crumbled light goat cheese
2 tbsp each fresh parsley and fresh basil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese for serving (optional)