“Verdi, food and cooks” – the favourites of a famous composer

You know Verdi, the famous composer? The one who wrote such operas as Aida and La Traviata? Turns out he had a special predilection for food! I found out about this when I was writing my dissertation on Italian opera a couple of years ago. As a bit of comic relief between all the writing, I was reading this essay called Verdi, Food and Cooks (from Aspects of Verdi by G.W. Martin). It stated a few pretty interesting facts about the maestro.

Did you know, for example, that Verdi was a pretty good cook, as well as a composer? His speciality is said to have been risotto alla milanese. A singer from his company and Verdi’s second wife, Giuseppina Strepponi, mentions it in two separate letters, stressing how good he was at preparing it. Referring to the applause Verdi got after a performance of one of his operas, she said: “Se sapessero poi come compone il risotto alla milanese, Dio sa quali ovazioni gli pioverebbero sulle spalle!”¹ (or “If they knew how he composes risotto alla milanese, God knows what ovations would rain down on his shoulders!”).

It seems Verdi also had a fussy side – apparently he fired cook after cook, sometimes for culinary flaws, sometimes for other reasons. Once he told a young lady, the daughter of his dinner host, to quit playing the piano during dinner, as he apparently could not stand the sound of music whilst he was eating. And he ordered waiters and cooks in restaurants about, telling them what to do and how to prepare his food. After a busy morning shopping at the local market in Cremona, where Verdi lived at the time, the composer went to have  cotoletta alla milanese, calling after the waiter “Remember, plenty of butter!”³

Cotolette alla milanese is a typical dish from the North of Italy (Milan, you guessed it), essentially breaded and fried veal cutlet. “But Dittatrice, isn’t that just a Wiener schnitzel, then?” Well, it kind of is, yeah. It’s a slightly delicate subject, but one which Italians seem capable of dealing with with some degree of humour, something which you can’t normally expect from them when it comes to the authenticity of their food. Either way, if I’m not mistaken, the difference lies in the frying: Wiener schnitzels are, I believe, deep-fried, whilst cotoletta alla milanese are shallow-fried. Whatever. It’s fried breaded veal, either way. I normally fry mine in olive oil, as my use of butter inevitably subjects me to the mockery of my Italian friends, who insist I use way too much of it. However, for this occasion we’ll use butter – if Verdi liked it, how could it possibly be wrong?

va pensiero sull'ali dorate

I still haven’t really understood what the correct meat for this is. I asked the butcher, he gave me coscia, or thigh (which in meat cuts translates to… God, I don’t know!), whilst various dodgy internet sources state lombo or sirloin. Yeah whatever, see what you can get your hands on. Either way, they have to be very thin slices, tenderised with one of those meat maces.

For two:

  • two slices of whichever veal you end up going for
  • one egg, beaten
  • half a cup of flour
  • half a cup of breadcrumbs
  • some lemon wedges, to serve
  • pinch of salt

Put your flour, your egg and your breadcrumbs on separate plates, in that order. Mix in a little bit of salt with your flour. Now drag your veal through the flour, making sure all is covered properly. Then do the same with the egg, making sure you coat the whole slice in egg, after which you drag it through the breadcrumbs to create a crunchy breadcrumb jacket. If you’re feeling a bit rock’n’roll, you can go for a double-breading: drag your meat through the egg again, and then through the breadcrumbs again. Double crispy.

Melt your butter, and when the bubbles are disappearing, chuck in your meat. Fry on both sides until it’s a nice golden brown, then serve up immediately! Squeeze a bit of lime juice over your cutlet if you like. Compose an opera after you finish.

IMG_2267 IMG_2270 IMG_2276

Sources:
1:Percorsi enogastronomici
2 & 3: George Whitney Martin, Aspects of Verdi (New York: Limelight Editions, 1988) 125-135.

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When in doubt, it’s Flemish!

Because Italians are inherently suspicious of what I cook, I sometimes lie to them in order to sound more expert. In any other nation, people would be impressed by the words “I just threw this together once and it came out really nice”, but Italians don’t seem to work that way. They won’t trust a dirty Northerner like me to come up with something good myself, so instead I pretend what I’ve made is a traditional dish from a region that they’re unfamiliar with.

Generally, if a dish has a British feeling to it, I’ll say it’s a Scottish classic – the best of British food comes from Scotland, after all. If it’s wildly foreign, depending on what ingredients are used, things suddenly become Chinese (star anise and sesame), Indian (turmeric and coriander) or North African (cumin and cinnamon). The golden rule is, the more specific you are, the better. Made something Dutch? Golly, I do believe this is a traditional dish from the south-west of the Netherlands, where it’s normally eaten around the holiday of Saint Bartholomew. Totally. I don’t particularly enjoy lying to people like this, but it’s the only way to get people to appreciate my food, really.

Saint Bartholomew aside, normally when I’m making something more or less Dutch, or let’s say, more or less northern-continental European, I find Flemish is the best fictional cuisine of origin. Flanders is better than its southern counterpart Wallonia (which is kind of French), and the Dutch have a bad reputation when it comes to food, whereas the Flemish are so obscure in the minds of most people that no-one even knows what their reputation is. No Italian knows what those people eat and being from the North, I’m the automatic expert. It works every time.

So voilà, Flemish sweet pork, or pork cutlets with dried fruit. It’s totally from Flanders. No, really. It totally is.

Poooooork it's the meat of kings

For three, you’ll want to get:

  • 3 pork chops
  • 4 onions, of different colours including at least 2 reds
  • a good hanful of prunes
  • a good handful of dried apricots
  • half a stick of cinnamon
  • salt and pepper
  • possibly a small amount of veg stock

Slice all your onions into rings, you’ll need them soon.

Fry your chops in some olive oil until they’re slightly coloured on both sides. Remove them from the pan. Add some oil if it looks very dry (although I don’t think it will, with all the pork fat going on), then fry your onion rings on medium heat.

When the onions have started going softish, chuck in all your dried fruit and the cinnamon stick, and add salt and pepper. Mix all well, leave for a couple of minutes, then put the meat back on top. Leave like this for about 20 minutes, half an hour tops, with a lid on. If it looks like it might be going dry and your fruit is getting stuck to the bottom of your pan, add a small amount of vegetable stock (no more than half a glass, probably not even that).

Serve with some vegetables and/or potatoes on the side. So Flemish!

It's made from pig, try it with onion rings Pork sure goes with everything, because it's made from swine (that's why it sure tastes fine!)

Posted in cooking, Food, recipes | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Try friarielli – they exist only here, only we have this

Last week I briefly mentioned a habit that a lot of people from Southern Italy have: claiming exclusivity. When you go to the South, people will feed you until you cry, and accompany just about every dish or ingredient with the words “Here, try this! It only exists here, only we have this”. They’re really big on this, which is fair enough because it’s awesome to be the exclusive producer/creator/consumer of something really delicious. It makes you an expert by the virtue of being one-eyed in the land of the blind.

It’s endearing and hilarious at the same time, because to me, only about half of the time it seems true. In Naples, you’re as likely to hear these words when eating some really unique, traditional, hand-made sweets, as when you’re trying a funky type of salad. I understand the charm of being the only one who has something, but I sometimes feel they’re pushing it a bit too far into the realm of the unlikely and unbelievable.

One of the many types of food that they “only have in Naples” are friarielli, or cime di rapa. I frequently buy cime di rapa here at the market in Turin, and my veg guy lists their origin as Puglia (the heel of the boot that is Italy: distinctly not in the close vicinity of Naples), and yet the Neapolitans in my life will not relent. “They’re not the same thing! Friarielli and cime di rapa are not the same vegetable!”

I googled it and found out the following complication: friarielli turn out to be cime di rapa that have started flowering. Well, this is going to be a tricky one to settle, isn’t it? They’re technically the same plant, but the two names refer to different stages in the plant’s life. Does that mean they’re the same thing or not? Let’s say they aren’t, or I’m gonna take a beating from my Neapolitan friends. Plus, I may have to admit: the flowering version, so friarielli, are actually a bit more bitter than cime di rapa, and thus, in my opinion, slightly more delicious.

The good news? I can now make my own friarielli by leaving my cime di rapa in the kitchen for too long. Awesome.

It's not yet a friariello...

This is the start of a flower but it's not quite developed yet, so we're still talking cima di rapa here.

This is the start of a flower but it’s not quite developed yet, so we’re still talking cima di rapa here.

As with many types of food, friarielli are best combined. Aim to eat them with their meaty spouse from the most beautiful culinary marriage of all times: friarielli e salsiccia, or friarielli with sausage. In Naples, you can buy this delicious duo in tonnes of places spread out over the city, usually in a roll or otherwise just like that on a paper plate to shovel down with a plastic fork sitting outside somewhere. You haven’t lived until you’ve had a roll with friarielli and sausages from Naples (you haven’t lived until you’ve been to Naples, full stop, but that’s a different story for a different time). If you want to have a go, and you’re not sure what to look for, in English friarielli are usually called broccoli raab or broccoli rabe, otherwise try for something like broccoletti. As I said, you can have them by themselves or in a roll, but I also like to have them with pasta. So that’s what we’re gonna have today. Pasta, friarielli e salsciccia.

I'm gonna get my ass kicked by all the Neapolitans I know :(

For two, use:

  • a foot of pork sausage
  • 400 gr of friarielli or cime di rapa
  • one small dried chili
  • one clove of garlic
  • enough pasta for two – I like penne for this one
  • olive oil
  • parmesan for finishing touching

Boil a big pot of water with salt for your pasta. In the meantime, crush your garlic and chop up your chili. Gently fry them in some olive oil, low heat. Grab your sausage and squeeze the meat out of the intestine so that you get small little balls of sausage meat. If you find this too much hassle you can also just cut them up with a knife, but I hate those little bits of rolled up sausage skin that you get when you fry them like that. Whichever you prefer.

Chop up your friarielli. Take off the bottom parts of the stems and chuck them out, chop up the rest in parts of half half an inch, then wash them and chuck them in with the sausages. Turn up the heat somewhat, put on a lid and leave the whole thing to simmer. After about a minute, stir the whole bunch, add half a glass of water and put the lid back on. Repeat this process until your friarielli are pretty soft. Then leave them with the lid off so that all the liquid can evaporate.

Boil your penne, drain them, add them to the meat-and-veg, mix well, top with some parmesan and enjoy.

IMG_2251 I LOVE THIS STUFF

Posted in Food, Italian | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

My fruitful quest for something new, or: how I met the bergamot

So here in Turin they organise all kinds of cultural events, and a couple of weeks ago it was time for the Salone del Gusto. The Salone del Gusto is essentially a really big, really overpriced, really pretentious farmers’ market. You go, you pay twenty pop to get in, you get minuscule samples of foods from all over Italy (and indeed from all over the world) and if you can afford it, you shell out a couple of tenners here and there to get your hands on some exclusive <insert product> from the only region in the world where they produce <previously mentioned product> in the authentic, traditional method. No, I didn’t forget to edit my rough draft – you can actually insert just about any product there and someone probably sells it at the Salone del Gusto.

At twenty euros, the tickets were priced rather steeply, and I was close to bailing on the whole thing. Of course, the Slow Food mafia knows that there’s always going to be idiots like me who would never miss out on an opportunity to see this much food from such a variety of places, so they get away with charging this much. Despite all my protestations of what extortionate prices these criminals were demanding for their stupid pretentious event, I ended up paying and heading down with a mate to check it out, hoping to find some exciting new things  I’d never seen before.

The place was gigantic. There were 5 different halls, all divided into sections that represented different regions of Italy, or in the case of the last hall, different countries of the world. Unfortunately I couldn’t stay all day, so we had to be selective. We briefly loitered around Piemonte, tried some olive oil in Tuscany, but then headed straight down to Calabria.

We weren’t sure why, but we both turned out to be pretty excited about this region of Italy. It’s not really a place where lots of people go all the time, or that is positively represented in the media. Around Italy, the Calabrians are mostly known for eating some really spicey shit and making tax-money disappear in the bottomless pits of shady local real estate projects. But Calabria was the region that made our visit worthwhile, and that made me slightly less resentful about having had to pay so much to get in. Of all the regions we saw that day, the Calabrians were the most generous with their samples, handing out sausages, ‘nduja, spicy peppers, and making conversation with everyone while they were at it. More important than that, though, they were the region that managed to amaze me the most with the food they introduced me to: Calabria is home to two fruits that I never even knew existed. One was the anona, a funky-looking thing with a soft, almost liquid pulp inside, pretty tasty.

The other one, the winner of the day, the undisputed champion of the Salone del Gusto, was the bergamotto, or bergamot orange. This thing rocks my world.

Oh, bright green beauty

Oh, bright green beauty

As you can see, they come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. Lemon for scale.

As you can see, they come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. Lemon for scale.

The bergamotto, the man told me, is a citrus fruit that grows only in the south of Calabria (although people from the south of Italy often say stuff like this). It’s used mostly for making essential oils and skin products, although you can also eat it. In fact, if you’re from the UK, you’ve probably consumed it indirectly tonnes of times in your life: I never realised this, but Earl Grey tea is flavoured with an essence extracted from bergamot skin. In fact, when you take a good sniff of a bergamot, or when you give the fruit a cheeky wee taste, it actually tastes really similar to Earl Grey. It’s the weirdest sensation, eating a fruit that tastes like a tea – although of course in reality the opposite is true. Either way, the bergamotto was a wonderful discovery for me, and seeing that they were being sold in bags of two kilos for only three euros, my friend and I each decided to take a bag. Surely these things were going to be ace in cakes, and this way we could have a bake-off. I went for a classic citrus dessert, a tarte au citron, but with bergamotto instead of lemon. A tarte au bergamot. It was every bit as awesome as expected.

If you can ever get your hands on a couple of bergamots, buy them. Do it. If not, make a tarte au citron, and use some lemons – not quite as interesting as the bergamot, but definitely pretty tasty.

It's like earl grey cake, but better

The tarte au bergamot starts with a shortcrust kind of pastry. Use:

  • 175 gr flour
  • 100 gr cold butter
  • 50 gr icing sugar
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 tbsp cold water.

The filling is made up with the following:

  • 60 ml bergamot juice
  • the zest of one bergamot
  • 100 ml fresh cream
  • 5 eggs
  • 200gr sugar

If you have a food processor, bring it out now. I used Blenderman’s blender, but it was having a pretty hard time. Pop your flour, butter and icing sugar in the food processor and whizz it all up so it becomes looks like crumble for your apple crumble. (If you don’t have a food processor or blender, imagine you’re actually making crumble.) Now add your yolk and water, blend some more, then tip the dough out onto a sheet of baking parchment. Work it out into a circle that’s a little bit larger than your baking tin, try to spread it out as evenly as possible. I used a combination of a rolling pin and my fingers for this, but see what works, the dough can be a bit delicate and sticky sometimes.

Now when you’ve got a good circle, take the whole sheet, turn it upside down, and try to work the dough into the tin so that it’s covering the whole bottom and you’ve got a nice edge on the side. You can push the dough against the side of the tin to hold it up, it’ll come loose whilst you’re baking. Remember that the cake is only going to be as high as its lowest point, as later on you have to fill it with a liquid bergamot filling: if some points are particularly low,use some of the dough from other, higher sides, to patch it up. Use a fork to press little holes in the bottom, but don’t poke them all the way though the dough.

the bergamot, it's bloody great bergamot, it's bostin' mate

Now you’ll have to do some blind baking: get yourself some baking beans, or just any type of dry beans, line your dough with baking parchment, top with the beans and pop the shortcrust in the oven for about 12 minutes on 200 degrees. Next, remove the baking beans, put the empty shell back into the oven for another 10 minutes or so, until it’s got a nice golden brown look. Take it out to cool down, and in the meantime, make the filling.

Check out my baking beans

Check out my baking beans

Beat your eggs together, then add sugar, bergamot juice and zest, and cream. Mix it all up properly. When your shortcrust shell has cooled down, fill it with your bergamot liquid, and put it back in the oven at a slightly lower temperature, 175 degrees. Leave it there for another 35 – 40 minutes. The filling should be solid, but still slightly wobbly. If the crust looks like it’s going to burn, cover the whole lot with some baking parchment or tin foil, until the filling is cooked properly.

Before serving up, top with some icing sugar (mainly because it looks nice, it’s sweet enough as it is). All hail the bergamot!

Ooh oohhh ohhh bergamoooooot you are my loooovvveeee taaaake me nowthis broadcast has been brought to you by the awesome bergamot

Posted in Baking, Desserts, Italian | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Sauerkraut to save my country from ridicule

So seeing that I’m of Dutch descent, my flatmates and Italian friends sometimes ask me to cook something that’s typically Dutch. I don’t usually comply to this request, and I suspect they don’t even really want to eat something Dutch, because I know what Italians are like – they’ll just complain about how it’s not Italian, give me snide comments about the order of the courses (“Oh really, salad before pasta?”) or use adjectives like ‘interesting’ or ‘very typical’ – in general, they’ll just diss the cuisine of my ancestors’ people. I have no intention to let my native country be ridiculed, so usually I say “sure, yeahhh… we can totally do that. This winter. Yeah…” and then I change the subject. I’m in Italy now, better be careful.

Recently I had a stroke of luck though. Blenderman kept asking when we were going to have sauerkraut, or crauti, as Italians call it, with sausages and mustard. I don’t know where he got that idea from, but I’m guessing it was probably a German. Not many people seem to know this, but like the Germans, the Dutch also tend to eat quite a lot of sauerkraut. They call it zuurkool, which makes a lot more sense: it translates to sour cabbage, which is a pretty apt description when you really think about it. Anyway, I decided this was a relatively safe bet for a Dutch dinner, as he’d specifically requested the main ingredient and there would be very little room for complaints. The preparation wasn’t quite as requested, instead I served it the Dutch way: with mashed potatoes, smoked sausage, bacon lardons and gravy. This stuff is so delicious that even an Italian is bound to appreciate it.

The preparation of zuurkool I’m describing here is one of many versions of a dish dish called stamppot – the Dutch make it quite a lot and it’s essentially mashed potatoes with some vegetable or other mixed in. It’s not a pretty sight, which is the reason you don’t normally find this stuff in restaurants. I think this contributes to the general obscurity of Dutch cuisine: Dutch food can be pretty delicious, but it’s so ugly that you don’t want anyone to see it. For this reason you only have it at home, when no one is looking. Well, have a look at this, and if you can get over its ugly face, have a shot. It’s really good.

zuurkool makes me want to become a pigfarmer zuurkool makes me want to live in Zierikzee

For 4, you will need:

  • 1 kg potatoes, ones that are suitable for mash
  • about 700 gr of sauerkraut
  • 2 large smoked sausages or any number of other sausages of your choice
  • 250 gr bacon lardons
  • some milk and butter, for the mash

If you want to make gravy, use whatever you normally use, or scroll down for a description of the mustard sauce I like to have with my zuurkool. If you’re making this, also make sure you have:

  • all the bacon fat from your lardons
  • one shallot
  • a good spoonful of mustard (the smooth type)
  • some vegetable stock

OK here we go!

Peel your potatoes, give them a rinse and boil them. Make mash, you know the drill. (If you don’t: add butter, milk, salt if you need to, mash those bitches up with a potato masher. Don’t have one? Use a fork. Good luck.) Whilst your potatoes are boiling, prepare your krauts. First of all, cut them up finely. No use having all these long sauerthreads killing your buzz. Once you’ve chopped it up into smaller bits, heat up your sauerkraut – you can do this in water, white wine or even apple juice. I prefer water, but it’s up to you. Chuck in a few juniper berries, put the whole bunch on low heat, and let it simmer for a while until it’s pretty hot.

While your tatties and crauti are boiling and/or simmering, get your meat on. If you’ve got some delicious smoked sausages, like we did last time, you can pop those in with the sauerkraut. If not, if you’ve got sausages that need frying, chuck them in with the bacon lardons – which you should pop in a frying pan right now to get them to the right degree of delicious crispiness.

As mentioned before, you can make the gravy any way you like. I made a mustard-based one, in part to humour Blenderman, in part because it’s goddamn delicious. Chop up a shallot, gently fry in as much of the lardon fat as you can possibly harvest, then add 1 or 2 tablespoons of smooth mustard and some vegetable stock or, in emergencies, even some of the potato boiling water. (Trust me.) Simmer until it’s all dense and delicious.

When your potatoes are mashed and your krauts are hot, remove the juniper berries, drain the krauts and chuck them in with the mash. Now mix all of it up so it’s an inseparable beautiful marriage of mash and kraut. Serve with sausage, bacon, gravy and a whole bunch of delicious beer. This shit will make you want to buy a wind jacket and move to the North of Europe.

zuurkool makes me want to chop wood for the winter and get a wood stove zuurkool makes me want to buy wooden vats and chop up generous amounts of cabbage and put them in water and salt zuurkool makes me want to move to the North to sit around in the rain

Posted in Food, Mains, Potatoes | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Applesauce to reconnect with your loved ones

One of the saddest things I have ever seen was a documentary on a bunch of Amish who had been ostracised from their community. It followed these ex-Amish types who had been cast out, presumably because they wanted to use a food processor, or the internet, or wear the wrong type of hat, or go out and get pissed, or something else that seems unimportant to some of us but that freaks out the Amish to no end.

Being ostracised from an Amish community isn’t so bad – you can go live somewhere else, use blenders and hair dryers, watch cats on the internet, use heroin and do anything that God forbids. The sad part, however, was when the couple hit hard times, and one of them ended up in hospital. Apparently this warranted a visit from their relatives, who came to see them. After they’d left, the girl of the couple was interviewed briefly. “They said they’d come back tomorrow, and they’re going to make us some apple sauce, so…”

It broke my heart. The sentence just died out like that, we never even found out what that ‘so’ meant. But I imagined it was something like “…so clearly they still love us a little.”, or maybe “…so clearly we’re not as godless as previously thought.” To me, the offer of apple sauce sounds like a poor way to reconnect, but it seemed that for them, there was a lot more to it than just the prospect of a free dessert. In it was the promise of forgiveness, acceptance, redemption.

Or maybe they just really fucking loved apple sauce. It is pretty delicious, it has to be said.

In the Netherlands there’s a thing like apple sauce as well, except they call it appelmoes, which description I find much more apt, as moes means something like ‘mash’ or ‘pulp’. The word sauce describes a condiment, and presumably something rather liquid and homogeneous. This version of appelmoes also exists, but it is a horrible product from usually industrial origins which is intended mostly for very small children who vomit up anything you give them indiscriminately, and elderly people with no teeth left in their mouths. Instead, we’re going to make home-made appelmoes, or applesauce, which is a lot more like a type of compote and much more delicious indeed. It’s also dead-easy to make, so if you intend to use it to reconcile with a long-lost family member, I recommend making something more elaborate.

applesauce, motherfuckers

You can serve appelmoes for dessert or breakfast with yoghurt, scoop it into your mouth just like that, or serve it at dinner with pork (in which case it becomes a condiment again).

For a good pot full of applesauce/moes, you will need:

  • a kilo and a half of soft apples – I like to use rennets
  • a cinnamon stick
  • some sugar – to taste
  • a bit of lemon peel, if you like – totally optional
  • about 200 ml of water

Peel all of your apples, cut them into chunk and chuck them in a pot, preferably with a thick base. Now add some water (about 200 ml for a kilo and a half of apples, but use you own judgement), the cinnamon and the lemon peel if using. Don’t add the sugar yet!

Put the apples on medium heat, bring to a soft boil and simmer for a while. Stir occasionally, so that the apples start disintegrating. Leave to simmer for a while longer so that the cinnamon stick can do its work and diffuse its delicious cinnamony flavour.

After you sauce (or moes) has a consistency you’re happy with (I like mine still slightly chunky), take it off the heat and leave it to cool for a while. After it’s cooled down a little, add the sugar – they say that this way, you won’t have to add as much as when you add the sugar whilst cooking the apples. I’m not sure if its true, but I take it at face value anyway.

Here you go, that’s your apple sauce done.

IMG_2157 IMG_2161 IMG_2162 applesauce, motherfuckers

Posted in Desserts, Food, Sweets and desserts, Vegan, Vegetarian | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Something is living in my fridge (and it helps me make bread)

A while ago one of my flatmates, the Queen of the Night, brought back a tupperware full of a dough-like substance that we soon found out was lievito madre, a type of living yeast used for breadmaking. We were initially pretty excited about all of the delicious focaccia that we were definitely, no doubt going to make with this creature, but then it turned out that we didn’t know how to use it and none of our stuff ever came out all that amazing. But help was under way – I recently stumbled across a one-day course to learn how to make bread with lievito madre, and decided to sign up. It was pretty cheap, super cultural, and only one day, so no strings attached.

The course was held on a Sunday, and it was organised by an association that does a whole bunch of cultural events here in the region. I’m generally very fond of this sort of thing, as I like to learn about the region I live in. Unfortunately this type of event is heavily frequented by the elderly, and the course was organised on a Sunday morning, which meant that I had to deal not only with a pounding hangover, but also with 20-odd dead excited pensioners who introduced their every question to the baker-teacher with an anecdote about the flour they bought last week which was different from the flour they normally used but and so on and so forth.

On my left side was the grumpiest man alive. On my right was a neurotic lady with her nine-year-old son whom she kept trying to instruct in doing just about anything from breathing to kneading. At the end of the day, someone stole my bread. I was kind of disappointed, but too unbothered to draw a granny into a fistfight about it, so I left the course with a whole lot of knowledge about different types of flour, new kneading techniques, and an anonymous bread that someone else had left behind (and that may have been way nicer than mine, actually).

So let’s talk about this yeast for a minute. Because this is where the language barrier gets messy. I know this thing as lievito madre. When I wikipedia this item, and I go to the English section, it tells me sourdough. But sourdough is a type of bread, not a yeast, right? I get so confused. The most likely translation I’ve been able to come up with is yeast starter. Let’s settle for that, and if anyone knows a better translation, please let me know.

Now I know that it’s pretty unlikely that anyone but me will have a yeast starter, but I’ve also been assure that no-one ever reads the recipes anyway, you’re just here for the story, which is totally cool. If you feel really inspired, you can chuck a bunch of flour in a tupperware with some water and a piece of fruit that’s gone funny – according to the bread people that’s how it works. If you do happen to have a bunch of yeast living in your fridge, you probably already know how to make bread, so this recipe will be useless, but never mind. This is the way I learned it and it was good fun. Have a go, if you fancy it.

OMFG IT'S ABREAD I MADE WITH MY HANDS

A note on baking bread: if your bread comes out terrible, keep trying. I’ve been assured that anyone’s bread gets better over time and I’m going to have to admit that mine still come out whichever way they choose to, not really the way I plan them to. But it’s cool, I like surprises.

For one big fat bread, use:

  • 250 gr yeast starter
  • 250 ml water, room temperature
  • half a kilo of flour – I use tipo 2, which is a bit stronger than strong bread flour. Go for strong bread flour if you’re not sure, I couldn’t really tell you what the UK calls this stuff
  • a little bit of olive oil
  • a teaspoon full of salt

As for materials, you will need some baking parchment.

You need a full day off for this, by the way. Here’s a summary, so you’ll know how much time this takes:

30 minutes: weighing ingredients, mixing of dough, first rising, kneading and folding
1,5 to 2 hours: rising and second folding
4 hours: more rising and last folding
1 hours: baking

Here we go!

Start by mixing your water with your yeast. Pop it all in a big bowl and then mix it until it’s a homogeneous paste. Put in about 2/3 of the flour, stir well so it becomes a nice smooth dough. Mix in the salt with the remaining 1/3 of the flour, then stir that in as well. By now, you should have a relatively smooth and workable dough ball. Leave it alone for about ten minutes.

That's my baby. My yeats gets more love than any biological child of mine ever would.

Now dust your hands with flour, grab that doughy motherfucker and start working it. You knead for a few minutes, then when it’s a nice smooth dough, start working it out into a circle. Don’t roll it with a rolling pin, don’t pull it so hard the surface tension (you know what I mean, right?) breaks, just carefully squeeze it with your fingers so it becomes a larger circle. Now fold that circle inwards. No idea what I’m talking about? Check this out:

IMG_2115 IMG_2117 IMG_2118 IMG_2121 IMG_2122 IMG_2125

Flip it over, and with swift movements, sort of shove your hands (palms upward) under the dough ball, twist it and repeat. This way you kind of close the folds. Then pop it in a large bowl that you’ve oiled up with olive oil before, cover it with a tea towel, and leave it alone for a couple of hours. It likes to be in a constant temperature of between 25 and 30 degrees celsius. Apparently if you turn on the little light in the oven (but not the oven itself) the temperature is perfect, so you can leave it in the oven for a while and the temperature will be nice and constant and your yeast will love you. When you go back to check on it, it’ll have doubled in size. (No? Don’t bin it, it might still turn out OK.)

They just grow so fast at this age, don't they?

After the rising time is up, pull out your dough, tip it over on a clean work surface, and repeat the whole stretching and folding procedure. Again, pop your dough back in the bowl (greased up!) but this time, leave it for 4 hours. Alright 3’s OK, but 4 is better. After four hours, pull it out, repeat the folding process, but this time instead of flipping the dough and closing the folds, you just leave it upright and you squeeze the folds shut, after which you pull the centre of the folds together upwards into a sort of bready nipple.

Now of course you’ve totally preheated your oven to the highest temperature imaginable (250 degrees, in my case) and you’ve put a bowl of water at the bottom. (No? Go do it now, then.) Pop your bread in and leave it like this or 15 minutes. After fifteen minutes, remove the water, turn the temperature down and leave your bread for another 45 minutes. Remove it from the oven, wait for at least half an hour (with this yeast business the flavour really changes in that half hour) and then eat it whenever you like.

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