Finisco sempre in cucina: e va bene così

6 gennaio 2019

Non ne avevo nessuna intenzione. Troppo da fare, stanca, apprensiva.

Ma ci pensavo.  Ai tortelloni che faceva mia madre.  I tortellini erano buoni, certo, ma la roba in brodo non è mai stata la mia number 1, ecco.  Però i tortelloni, belli grossi, panciuti, ripienissimi di ricotta e spinaci (o bietole), allora, questo è un pasto ne plus ultra.

Dunque, vado giù nel seminterrato della mia casa newyorkese e cerco il vecchio tagliere che usava mia suocera.  Eccolo!  Per niente nascosto, ma non ci ho dato uno sguardo da anni, usando sempre e solo quello più piccolo di marmo per fare i miei vari biscotti e crostate.  Ma questo è il ‘tagliere della pasta’, e questa farò!

I ricordi sbiadiscono, si accantonano nel buio, e tu li lasci lì, perché ti punge troppo risvegliarli.  Poi smetti di pensarci.  Ma, all’improvviso, è Capodanno, e ti ritrovi a Portici, mia madre (modenese DOC) tira la sfoglia, che diventa così sottile e enorme sotto quel matterello lunghissimo; lei si affanna a finire presto, perché poi si asciuga e deve ancora tagliare i quadretti.  ‘Via, bambini – diceva – copriteli coi tovaglioli, si seccano, si seccano…!’ E noi lì, a gironzolare intorno al tavolo di fòrmica della sua cucina gialla, con niente da fare ma aspettare il risultato delle sue fatiche: i bei tortelloni fumanti, lucidi di burro fuso, spolverizzati abbondandemente col parmigiano che toccava a me grattugiare.

Preparo l’impasto, nella mia cucina gialla di New York, l’odore onesto di uova e di legno m’ipnotizza, la pasta è soffice, elastica e liscia sotto le dita.  Era sempre di sera, quando lei faceva i tortellini/tortelloni, poco prima di preparare la cena. ‘Guardate-diceva-, ecco come si formano i tortellini, osservate, ricordatevelo…e non ditelo a nessuno!  È un segreto della mia famiglia, da passare ai vostri figli e a nessun altro!’ E così ho fatto, muta come un pesce, tanti, tanti anni dopo.  Capisco, mamma, certe cose non si buttano al vento, sono preziose e importanti, pesano di memorie e di una vita intera, devi raccoglierle e custodirle nel silenzio.

Taglio i quadretti con la rotella, cerco di farli uguali, ma non misuro niente, altro che riga, tutto a occhio, come faceva lei, veloce ed esperta, con lo sguardo perso nella malinconia dei suoi ricordi.  Invece delle salviette, li avvolgo nella pellicola, che li terrà belli morbidi (viva i tempi moderni!).  Il ripieno l’ho già fatto, la ricotta soda dal caseificio di Brooklyn, gli spinaci freschi in un bel pacchetto sigillato, già lavati e asciugati (di nuovo, viva le comodità moderne), il parmigiano importato (carissimo!), profumato come allora, quando lo grattuggiavo a mano, ascoltando l’hit parade alla radio, in attesa emozionata della canzone della settimana.

Uno alla volta, li farcisco, con attenzione, ma il più velocemente possibile (‘si seccano!’), e li metto in fila ordinata e diritta, così potrò contarli più facilmente, sulle lastre per i biscotti; li copro con la carta stagnola e li metto in frigo.

Il tagliere mi aspetta, e lo pulisco con cura con il raschietto, il legno spesso e solido, confortevole, come quei giorni di tanto tempo fa, quando prendevo per scontato, nella mia innocenza puerile, i piccoli miracoli quotidiani, la mamma sarebbe stata sempre lì, nella calda cucina gialla, impegnata con le sue meraviglie culinarie.  E mio padre, nello studio, con la libreria scura cinquecentesca, immerso nelle sue carte e nella gloria della musica di Beethooven.

Il tempo ti ruba il passato; poi te lo sbatte in faccia quando meno te lo aspetti.

Che fai allora? Ti abbatti per un istante, ti lasci lavare dal dolore, ti afflosci.

Poi ti rialzi, ti rimbocchi le maniche e ti metti a fare i tortelloni.

(Ringrazio di cuore mia cugina Elisabetta a Modena, che mi ha pazientemente tenuto la mano step-by-step con la preparazione della sfoglia perfetta, via messaggi Whatsapp.  La tecnologia è stupenda quando funziona!)

Advertisements

Another Year! Benvenuto!

It wasn’t planned, but, as the new year approached, I suddenly decided to dive into the holiday memories of my Italian childhood, as an intense yearning for my mother’s delectable Tortelloni alla ricotta spiraled out of control.

She used to make tortellini and tortelloni alternatingly, based on her mood, I suppose, as the first course for the major holidays, especially Christmas and New Year.  As most of you know, tortellini are small, stuffed with a meat and parmigiano filling and traditionally served in a rich chicken/meat soup.  Keep in mind that the amazing homemade tortellini from Modena have nothing to do with the abominations found, either fresh or frozen, in grocery stores.  These are handmade jewels that involve endless hours of labor, which can only be achieved with great patience, passion and determination (a nice glass of wine nearby only enhances the experience, believe me).

Tortelloni are larger, stuffed with a creamy and savory filling made with ricotta and either Swiss chard or spinach, and served in a simple butter and parmigiano sauce.  Sheer perfection.

I made my filling a day ahead and refrigerated it.  I dragged out the big tagliere (large wooden board usually used to make homemade pasta) that had been quietly in storage for years, and got to work.  As I mixed the flour and the eggs, (the ONLY ingredients needed to make fresh pasta, don’t you dare add oil or anything else!), my American reality began to slowly fade, and I was a child in my mother’s yellow kitchen in Portici, casually observing as her magic hands created this huge, almost paper-thin sfoglia, a soft sheet, born from a small ball of pliable dough.  She worked quickly, my mother, pure-blooded Modenese that she was, raised in this wonderful tradition.  With a little wheel, she cut the squares, quickly covering them with dish towels, since they dry very fast, shouting directions to make room on the table, to the three of us kids, who were just hanging around the warm kitchen, caring little, taking it all for granted, innocently believing that it would always be like this, that time would stand still, she would always be there, rolling out pasta with that long wooden pin, happy and upset at once, rushing, stressing, exulting.

The tortelloni were my favorites, and still are.  Italian children are not very fond of soup (except for the iconic pastina in chicken broth), so knowing that these delectable fat and tender dumplings were to be served as a nice pasta first course was super-exciting.

Once they were all stuffed, she lined them all up on numerous plates and placed them on every flat surface in the house, to dry till the next day.  Now, in our modern times, people do not follow this practice any longer, for the legitimate fear of salmonella, and the tortelloni are placed to dry in the refrigerator, and of course this is what I do.  (However, maybe because nobody ever thought of such things then, none of us ever fell ill).

The table was set in the kitchen, with a soft, freshly-laundered tablecloth.  Unless we had dinner guests, we never ate in the dining room, when I was growing up in Italy, and with my family being small and introverted, it was quite a rare occasion that anyone else was invited to a meal.  But the room was large, sunny and inviting, the old radio (built by my uncle who was a master radio and tv technician) played cheerfully in the background.  My mother filled the individual dishes at the stove (she never placed the serving bowl in the middle of the table), and we would eagerly dig in, eating way too fast, our childish eyes much larger than our stomachs, often becoming frustrated for not being able to devour more of those marvels of gustatory joy.  Then it was over.  Another year or so to wait for the next batch…unless we begged her to please please make tortelloni again, for the next holiday, instead of something more mundane and boring like baked pasta or lasagne.  And the dear soul usually complied.

Well, wishing and sighing will get me nowhere useful, so I suck up the pain, lock it up in the sealed chambers of my heart, roll up my sleeves and lose myself in the exhaustion of honest labor.

Tortelloni filled with ricotta, spinach, a lifetime of memories, fury, love, frustration and infinite melancholy, are ready!  Come and get them!

Buon anno a tutti!  Happy New Year!

Lasciarsi andare (per un istante)

12 novembre 2018

Le poche volte che salgo in soffitta la ignoro.  È sempre lì, la valigetta verde, nel suo angolino, seminascosta dai valigioni rossi e lucidi che aspettano pazientemente d’imbarcarsi per l’Italia.  Mentre la valigetta verde l’Italia ce l’ha dentro.  È un vecchio modello vintage anni settanta, leggera, perché le carte non pesano poi tanto.  Anche quelle cariche di storie.

Stavolta la porto giù, l’adagio sulla moquette e, con mano leggermente incerta, tiro la cerniera.

Teneri i diari scolastici Grazia del liceo, con quelle copertine cool (almeno così sembravano allora) e spigliate.  Calligrafia non bella, a volte anche disordinata, soprattutto quando scrivevo quelle dichiarazioni assurde e pesanti da adolescente (irragionevolmente) angosciata –  Sono così infelice! Dio mi odia! L’amore fa schifo!  Spesso scritte in un inglese da principiante, sotto la lista dei compiti.  Poi i diari, quelli veri, quelli su cui disegnavo i cuoricini e i nomi più preziosi del momento.  La passione possente che ancora non capivo, travestita da amore nascente, attenuata dalla naïveté della mia giovane età, che volava sulle ali traditrici di sogni irrealizzabili.  Emozioni acerbe, pure e intense – ti amo, ti odio, mi manchi, ti riprendo, adesso basta, avanti un altro, quello vero, quello grande, quello ‘per sempre’.  Ma ‘per sempre’ non esiste.

Le lettere.  Carta fragile, sottilissima, quasi ho paura di toccarle, che si frantumino in un mucchietto di polvere e si disperdano nell’aria.  Come i sogni.  Nomi che mi afferrano il cuore, altri che non riconosco perché tanto tempo è passato, e forse non erano importanti.  Quelle amicizie estive, sbocciate spontanee il primo giorno al mare (o in montagna), diventate vincoli di acciaio in pochi giorni, poi cuori spezzati quando ci si doveva separare.  Ti scriverò tutti i giorni! giuravamo.  E lo facemmo, missive fitte fitte, spedite in fretta, ricevute con gioia traboccante.  Per qualche mese.  Poi qualcuno non risponde più e finisce lì.

Le foto di classe, in bianco e nero, quei visi così familiari, ma i nomi sfuggenti; poi giro la foto e mi perdo nella dolce tortura dei messaggi e delle dediche, spesso spiritose, commoventi perché sincere nella loro immaturità.

I disegni.  I taccuini a quadretti, tanti racconti infantili, da me creati quando ancora non sapevo che avrei scritto per una vita intera.  Illustrati coi pastelli, fate con i veli svolazzanti, principi azzuri dai capelli biondi, il lieto fine, sempre un lieto fine.  I ritratti di amici, sorella, compagni di classe, attrici.  Ero brava, accidenti.  Ma perché ho poi smesso di disegnare? Già, la vita, quella vera, mi ha incastrato, ha cancellato i desideri e la creatività, regalandomi in cambio una lista di doveri che mi occuperà per l’eternità.

Basta.  Chiudo la valigetta, mi accingo a riportarla lassù, nel suo meritato nascondiglio.

Ma la trascino a stento, è diventata pesantissima, una cassetta di piombo che mi taglia le dita.

Diving in

Against my better judgement.

I usually ignore it, when I go up into the attic.  The little, light, green plastic suitcase, vintage 70’s, standing up straight, partially hidden by all the others, the large modern ones, mostly red, mostly rarely used.

But in there lies my story, my history, my Italian life, my marvelous and angsty formative years.

I unzip it, and the flood of the past engulfs me almost instantly. I can smell the salty marine air of the Portici’s harbor, all the fishing boats lolling on the gentle waves, preparing for their nightly journey.  I am blinded by the lights of the parochial theater, buzzing with activity and excitement, as the teens enthusiastically rehearse for the play.  I walk the elegant, crowded Viale Leonardo da Vinci, a river of chatty, animated young humanity, bursting with the hope and joy of those who still don’t know better.

A rainbow of notebooks unfolds before my apprehensive eyes: I blink, even turn my gaze toward the window and the fading green of the trees of my New York autumn.

I’m ready to close up that perilous well of the past immediately…but I can’t.

So much writing, more or less neat, in those hundreds (thousands?) of pages, a plethora of exclamations points ending the sentences, because emotions were pure, extreme and raw in those wonder days. The tender, innocent diaries of someone who was in love with the world, yet insisted on despising it.  Call it teenage angst, or embarking into the tentative construction of your own life, not according to your parents’ desires and plans.

My cheerfully decorated school agendas, filled with an insane quantity of quotes, mostly sappy, but, at the time, fundamentally powerful, next to the list of my homework assignments.

Life was vividly colored then, no gray areas.  Friendships were forever, infatuations were eternal love, the future was a kaleidoscope of images of that amazing life of traveling the world, a world that was kind and welcoming, as I believed in my naïve knowledge of humankind.

A stack of letters, some slightly yellowed, the ink fading in spots, some corners torn.  I read the names, and some shake me to the core, others barely ring a bell.  So many summer friendships, developed spontaneously at the various resorts where my parents would take us during the summer months, new ‘best’ friends, whom we couldn’t bear to leave, at the end of our two-week stay, our young hearts ripped in two.  Thus, the frequent correspondence, afterwards, for several months, three-four sheets of flimsy letter paper filled, with every single detail of our lives, sincerely curious and interested in each other’s stories.  Stories that eventually ended, when one side or the other would simply stop responding.

Those days when people were made of flesh and smiles, their touch was real, their voice close by.  Not photographs on Facebook, their words blue-white letters on a lit screen.

My precise drawings, illustrating my original fairy tales, amuse and inspire me: Why on earth did I stop drawing? I was rather talented.  Oh yes, life happened, the real thing, the one that overwhelms the mind and soul, that erases dreams and innate skills, that dulls the senses.  It’s called maturity.  Also known as the demise of spontaneity and vibrant, liquid emotions.

The photographs are aggressive. They grasp my heart and squeeze it till I’m gasping for air.  Noisy school yards, smiling boys and girls, spensierati, yes, carefree though we didn’t know it.  I turn over the class photos, and make my aching way through all the handwritten dedications and messages.  Yes, I remember you, and you, and you I hated, but not truly.  And you were my world till it ended. And, after that, you were my world. A series of important people that really weren’t so, after all.  The cruel unfolding of life. Continuous replacement.  Of everything.

I close the suitcase, grab the handle and make my way up the ladder to the attic.

But it’s so difficult, the climb: the little green suitcase is so much heavier now, I can barely drag it.

My Kingdom

My kitchen. 

My comfort zone.  My safe place.  My hideaway.

I won’t cry: I will make an Apple Cake.

I won’t bang my head against the wall; I will start chopping onions on a pretty green cutting board, following Jacques Pépin’s precise instructions, and caramelize them slowly in a little olive oil. (Do try them on a burger).

I will avoid dwelling on the past, refuse to be tortured by regrets, what could have been if I had gone through the other door, if I had been wise at nineteen, if I had listened to my mother, if I…

It is small, my kitchen.  Counter space?  Will twenty inches do? Yes, my friends!  I can work in that little space just fine, spreading out to my sturdy wood kitchen table when I bake.  You don’t need yards of polished granite to perform, I assure you. You don’t need recessed lights, stainless appliances, French copper pots hanging from strategically placed hooks on the ceiling.

Or the ISLAND.

I never had the ISLAND in my life and, believe it or not, I’m  surviving.

Desire.  And passion.  With a touch of fury.  All you really need to become an outstanding baker and cook.  Not that I claim to be.

All I know is that when I am in the kitchen, I am okay.  I will put on my apron du jour, command (mostly) reliable Alexa to play something (Yes, Latin Pop works wonders), pour a glass of something other than lemonade, and become Chef.

The apron, by the way, is important.  I do have a little collection of them, since people who know me well gift them to me at times (and I go directly to the housewares department of TJ Maxx more often than not).  You slip on that crisp apron and…you’re on!

Getting serious in the kitchen.

You need to be serious.  And determined. 

Serious because you love it.  If you don’t, then make reservations.

The kitchen can heal you. You are broken, limp through your emotions, tremble secretly, swear never again, consider extreme options, then brush them aside.  You are going to cook!

My trusty black GE gas range is awaiting instructions. It’s four burners, by the way, not restaurant-size, but then, I’m not running a restaurant.  I clean it lovingly every evening, grateful for its reliability.  Yes, the Sausages and broccoli di rape were cooked perfectly, the meat tender, golden and flavorful (but I did keep a watchful eye).

I will not (usually) slam doors.  I will not drive aimlessly for two hours, boiling with anger, swearing revenge (at least, not for the whole two hours).

I will not book a flight to Paris with a credit card, shrugging whatever, had enough.

I will make a little gem of a flourless chocolate cake.  I will place it carefully on an egg-yolk-yellow cake stand which will enhance its simple perfection: I will buy fresh heavy cream, whip it to cloudy softness, add a hint of pure vanilla.

I will glance around my tiny yellow kitchen, smile at the colorful stacked bowls on the shelves across from the fridge, allow my patched-up heart to skip a beat at the sight of my French baking pan collection (gathered through numerous years of baking passion), trace the sharp curves of my Bundt pans, imagining all the glorious pound cakes to come.

I will turn the ache into a tender tart filled with satin-smooth lemon curd.

I will drown the sadness by bathing bright-green basil leaves in cool water, then patting them dry for an absolutely magnificent Pesto.

The kitchen can save your life.

The kitchen is my kingdom.

(Here is the link to the recipe for the Flourless Chocolate Cake).

Why You Should Make Le Fraisier 

Because life is short, and you always just do what you must.

Because you are practical, responsible, with common sense coming out of your ears.

That’s most of us. 

You bake a pan of Brownies for the kids (scrupulously from scratch, please!), stirring the melted butter and chocolate with a spatula, in a pot on the stove, already visualizing the little dark squares that you have been making for twenty odd years.

Suddenly, the bubble of routine and intense boredom has become intolerable, and the urge to take that panful of molten monotony and shove it out of the window is nearly irrepressible.

So, you make Le Fraisier

In fact, I bake quite often, but generally I go for simple, hearty breakfast cakes, the ubiquitous Brownies, a pound cake baked in a spectacularly intricate Bundt pan, to obtain at least a visually inspiring product.

Naturally, the time factor is the culprit, plus the constant exhaustion, as we zombie our way through life, our only purpose survival of another day.

Following one of my favorite TV programs, The Great British Baking Show, while partially dozing, due to the above-mentioned exhaustion (and perhaps the oversized glass of Pinot Grigio), I perked up when I watched the

Genoise

mesmerizing preparation of the stunning Fraisier, one of the glories of French Haute Pâtisserie.

In the ‘old days’, before my life became so fast-paced and maddening complicated, I used to dedicate long, enjoyable, hours to the preparation of elaborate cakes and tarts, following lengthy recipes in my enormous cookbook collection.  I became quite an accomplished pâtissière!

Mousseline

 

Then life caught up with me.

Well, I’m rebelling.  I’m not making Chocolate Chip Cookies this time, but a stunning Fraisier!  And I don’t need a reason for it.

I did some research in my French baking books, surfed the web, till I found a video that seemed quite reliable.  I watched it very carefully, then wrote my shopping list, hit the stores for a few items I didn’t have at home – strawberries, almond flour, milk (yes, milk: nobody drinks milk in my house), then began the methodical prepping of the various components.  It took a couple of days, stealing time from this

and that; prepare the almond genoise (French sponge cake), the crème pâtissière, the mousseline, the simple syrup, the marzipan. A serene joy filled my heart as I watched each creamy, velvety concoction turn out beautifully.

The little things.

The final assembly was perhaps the most heart-fluttering and dramatic stage of the process.  The exquisite beauty of a well-executed gateau  makes one feel, well, worthy.

Homemade Marzipan

Damn, I still got it!

I invited my whole family over for cake, the day after.  Just because.

Le Fraisier became only a memory in thirty minutes flat!  Thank goodness for smartphones.

Make a Fraisier, my friends.  Good for the soul.

 

(If you want to give it a try, here is the link to the  professional video I followed to the letter. Have fun!)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i4tiAdE38E4&w=560&h=315