Rainy-day baking

Despite yet another gloomy day, I’m assuming that the pleasures of outdoor dining are just around the corner. We’ve had crazy weather for months, with the temperature spiking into the 90s long before it should have, then taking a 20-degree fall—sometimes in the space of an hour or two. I know I’m not the only one longing for a steadier state.

Yesterday started out an idyllic, sunny spring morning. Unfortunately, the sky had turned  a dull gray by noon. The rest of the day was bleak, with wind and rain during the night, and today it’s pouring. More gloom is expected for the holiday weekend. Still,  I persist with the optimistic view that we’ll be dining al fresco some time soon. At least some of the time, that means burgers on the grill.

Which brings me to the actual purpose of this post, to share my very favorite recipe for sandwich rolls. I don’t know about you, but I despise supermarket hamburger rolls. They’re full of dough enhancers, preservatives, and artificial flavors; they’re gummy and just about tasteless. Hubby calls this “chemical bread” in all its iterations, which is both pretty cute and pretty much on-target.

Since I love to bake bread, last summer I decided that we were done with packaged supermarket rolls and began looking for sandwich roll recipes on my go-to King Arthur Flour website. Beautiful Burger Buns, Click to link to the recipe. I discovered, are lovely looking, good tasking soft buns. I highly recommend this easy recipe if you prefer a very traditional soft bun—for example, for brisket sandwiches with an au jus, pulled pork, for Sloppy Joes or Wimpies or whatever-they-call that old reliable delight in your part of the world. Maybe even for a chicken salad sandwich. If you try this recipe, however, be mindful that it calls for a fair amount of sugar, which helps to achieve the lovely golden brown color. It’s a bit too sweet for my taste, so I suggest cutting back a bit on the sugar—perhaps from ¼ cup to two tablespoons, per King Arthur notes.

A few months ago, I noticed another KAF recipe, No-Knead Sandwich Rolls, on the KAF Flourish blog. I had a feeling, reading through the directions, that they’d be perfect, which they have been, without fail. They have a more European texture, with a nice airy “crumb.” They’re substantial enough to shape any way you want to—long, for example, for a sausage and pepper sandwich, or smaller than usual, for a dinner roll. Rather than repeat the recipe here, I opted once again to rely on the link, where you will find detailed instructions with photos. Don’t skip dusting them with flour—I’m convinced it helps to produce that lovely crust. Use a sieve, and dust each tray immediately after shaping. One other tip—although the KAF photos show different shapes on the same tray, I suggest doing all the round ones on one tray, and longer ones for hoagies (subs, to you folks who call them that) on another, just in case there’s any minimal variance in baking time. Check at 20 minutes—mine were sufficiently brown by then.

These rolls are truly worth the minimal effort. They’re good enough on their own, as a European-style breakfast treat with butter and jam. What’s more, they freeze beautifully. You can make them ahead (in the evening, perhaps, when it’s not so hot), cool them, and freeze them in a bag, then take out just what you need every time. For sandwich rolls, slice them as soon as they’re completely cool, before freezing. When you’re ready to serve, defrost on the counter and warm them up a bit, and they’ll be just as good as they were right out of the oven.

And here’s another plus—you can make the dough ahead of time, all in the same bowl, which means no mess on the counter— and refrigerate it after the rise. It will store covered in the fridge for up to seven days, which is true for no-knead recipes in general.

They say you shouldn’t bake on a rainy day, but I can’t think of anything I’d rather do to chase away the gloom. Once I heat up that oven, all will be well.

Notes:
I use the KAF dough bucket and KAF dough whisk when I make no-knead bread in particular. The bread bucket has measurements so that you can see when the dough has doubled in bulk. Plus, no mess on the counter! The whisk is great–the gooey dough doesn’t stick to it. I bought one elsewhere as a gift once, but the KAF is definitely superior.

I used my go-to KAF unbleached white flour for both, but there’s no reason you couldn’t mix it with white whole wheat, or add wheat germ or flax, for extra nutritive value.

 

Food we loved in Florence

Food memories, like song lyrics, stick.

One of our favorite places in Florence was San Michele all’Arco, a farm-to-table “resto” (kitchen in the photo above) with the most marvelous local olive oil, prosciutto, and cheese. The soup pictured below was just exquisite—every flavor came through, every flavor mattered. The same was true for everything else we enjoyed there.

We stumbled on  another neighborhood spot, I Ghibellini, in Piazza San Pier Maggiore,  just after we arrived in Florence.  We’d been on the train for half the day, we were starving, and it was the closest restaurant still serving lunch. Lucky for us! Oh, that pasta al limone! Oh, those exquisite white beans! Oh, that bistecca!

The things is… even though you can buy superior imported Italian products here, they don’t—they can’t— taste quite the same as they do at the source.

We returned to both restaurants several times, which is our habit when we find places we especially like. So often, the neighborhood places that don’t show up in the tour guides end up being the most memorable.

Everyday kindnesses

Here in the United States, it is Mother’s Day; and I find myself reflecting, once again, on two things—first, how blessed and lucky I am to be a mother, and second, on my own mother’s extraordinary generosity of spirit.

Little gestures can mean a great deal in the press of ordinary life. I learned this at my mother’s feet. My mother was wonderful at responding to others’ needs in the small ways that can truly make a difference. She reached out to the little ones in the neighborhood, greeting them when she saw them outside, inviting them into a conversation that continued as long as they lived there. In the days when we had milk delivered to the house, she always greeted the milkman. If she happened to have fresh blueberry muffins that day (which she often did when berries were in season), she would give him one. She did the same for our mailman. She welcomed newcomers. She took walks on summer evenings and stopped to talk to everyone along the way. Although I was an only child, she made sure that I had frequent opportunities to spend time with my many cousins, and that my friends knew they were always welcome in our home.

Consciously or otherwise, she practiced what we Catholics call the corporal works of mercy. My father, who typically worked out of town during the week, joined her in these good deeds, large or small, whenever he could. She visited hospitalized friends and family. She went to viewings and funerals—not just for family, but for friends from childhood, neighbors, people she had met through her work, church members—to comfort the grieving. When her long-time customers became too frail to come to her salon, she went to their homes to do their hair—not for money, but in gratitude for their patronage.

She cooked for everyone—the ailing, the grieving, those whom she thought just needed a lift. She delivered dozens of Christmas cookies to the priests first, and then to relatives and neighbors every year. She entertained friends and family graciously. She called her sisters, brothers, nieces, nephews, and cousins regularly, sometimes nightly, if she thought they needed attention. With my father, she made a point to continue the Italian tradition of visiting our older relatives on Sunday as a demonstration of respect. She volunteered tirelessly at church—assuring that vestments were crisp and fresh, taking charge of the altar flowers, making cakes for bake sales, helping out with Girl Scouts. She did anything the school asked of her.

Always a gracious host, she opened her home to my father’s New England family many times, assuring their comfort and spending hours preparing memorable meals from scratch, usually in the summer months when the kitchen was hotter than Hades. She took my father’s brother in at a low point in his life, and with my father helped him to recharge.

Throughout their 49-year marriage, she was a loving, completely committed wife and partner to my father. And when I became a mother, she became a “Nonnie” of infinite, loving patience, who took obvious joy in every minute she spent with her grandchildren.

The remarkable thing is that my grandmother died of the Spanish flu when my mother was only eight. Her notion of mothering, within and beyond her immediate family, was developed in her heart, on her own. She took seriously the values she heard about in church and, consciously or otherwise, lived her faith throughout her life, mothering those around her with everyday kindnesses.

Photo: My mother and me just before my cousin Sally’s wedding. My mother was in pale lavender; I was in buttercup yellow. Sadly, the original color photo has faded.

Consistent with the time, I have almost no photos of her taken in the context of ordinary, day-to-day life. Cell phones have changed all that, and that is one benefit of technology for which I’m very grateful.

 

Cinque Terre delights

Whenever we travel, I take photos of what we eat—unless, of course, we’re in a restaurant where doing so would constitute bad behavior.

Today I’m sharing a few lovely food memories from Italy’s magnificent Cinque Terre, five picturesque villages on the Mediterranean coast of Liguria. Pesto reigns supreme there, but the spaghetti with clam sauce was the most exquisite I’ve ever tasted, probably because those little clams were gathered from the sea the day I ate them.

The trattoria pictured above is in Riomaggiore; the spaghetti a la vongole was in Monterosso al Mare, where we stayed. One of our favorite meals was actually a simple pizza night there. The ebullient owner was so very proud that his pizzeria, and the town itself, had come back from the devastating mud slides of the prior year. It was a joy to chat with him, and, especially, to be among the local families enjoying their pizza. That’s the kind of experience that many guidebooks wouldn’t suggest, but being part of “real, everyday life”  is precious to us. It’s  the difference between being a tourist on the outside edges and, however briefly, feeling a part of the community you are visiting.

Okay, I’m hungry now.

 

Adriana Trigiani’s Italian-Americans

I was thrilled to receive a pre-publication copy of Adriana Trigiani’s new book, Kiss Carlo, which goes on sale June 20. This post is more of an homage than a review. I’ve loved Trigiani’s books since my cousin Nina first handed me Lucia, Lucia in 2004. Since then,  I’ve read them all.

Suffice it to say that I can relate. Take those wedding reception sandwiches in wax paper bags that Trigiani describes in Queen of The Big Time, which is set in Roseto, in the Slate Belt of Eastern Pennsylvania. The only real memory I have of my grandmother is being in her kitchen in Maine, with  all the other Italian women from Smith Crossing, as they made and packaged sandwiches in wax paper bags for my Auntie Anna’s wedding.

Trigiani is a masterful storyteller. Over the years, I’ve followed the immigrants she writes about faithfully, as they left their tiny, impoverished villages to build new lives in the US, in locations as diverse as Minnesota, Manhattan, Hollywood, the Blue Ridge Mountains, and Roseto, of course. You get to know Trigiani’s complicated characters through big screen-worthy dialogue, within a carefully honed historic and cultural context. Expect to laugh out loud at, fall in love with, get mad at, and cry over them. These are characters you miss when the book ends.

One of the things I love most about Adriana Trigiani’s books is that they have real-life inspirations. The Shoemaker’s Wife, for example, was based on her grandparents‘ story (the link is to a video trailer you will love). At the same time, her novels reveal the important mark that Italian-Americans have made on this country, what they endured, and the artistry and traditions they contributed (see her in the PBS tour de force, The Italian-Americans). The big, noisy Sunday dinners, the church at the center of family and community, the downright biblical family feuds may seem stereotypical to an outsider, but we insiders understand that they reflect what we grew up with… and, for good or ill, crawled out of.

Kiss Carlo is set largely in one of the nation’s most iconic Italian-American communities, South Philly. It’s a BIG story—a saga, in fact, through which Trigiani has wound what may seem an unlikely Shakespearean thread. This shouldn’t be too surprising. Apart from my humble opinion that everything you need to know about life can be found in Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, the play that figures in the plot, is a tale of masquerade and discovery. Throughout Kiss Carlo and all of Trigiani’s work, it seems to me, runs the theme of first and second-generation Italian-Americans struggling to find out who they really are and who they can become when they are finally confident and comfortable in their New World skin. As I said before, I can relate. I’m sure my parents could have, too.

Kiss Carlo was a great read. I think you’ll like it.

Photo: My paternal grandparents, Maria Grazia and Francesco, second and third from the left, were immigrants from the village of Centrache, in Calabria. They settled in the tiny paper mill town of Rumford, ME. They had 14 children—all but one born in this country—and many, many grandchildren. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tranquil in Bethlehem

Bethlehem is one of Pennsylvania’s treasures, for its rich historic significance and the gracious, centuries-old buildings that have held fast despite the encroachment of time, the birth and death of the steel industry, and the Sands Casino erected in Bethlehem Steel’s reclaimed brown fields. That the casino and its trappings flourish within blocks of the Northern Province headquarters of the Moravian Church in America, and rarities like the annual Bach Festival staged this time of year by the world-acclaimed Bach Choir of Bethlehem, seems more than a little ironic to me.

Bethlehem, of course, is appropriately known as the “Christmas City.” Its Christmas decorations are resplendent, and it’s fun to tour the shops and the Old World Christkindlmarkt, while carolers in Victorian garbs walk the streets. There’s an annual Celtic Festival, and Musikfest during the month of August. All of these are fine, but a cast of thousands rarely appeals to me; I much prefer the city, especially its historic heart, in quiet times.

I took these photos a few years ago on a gorgeous spring day in early May, on Moravian Church grounds. In another life, I spent quite a bit of time in the shadow of Central Church, the Bell House, and Moravian Academy’s Lower School. I always found this spot to be an oasis of great tranquility. You can learn more at the Historic Bethlehem website: Do enjoy. And visit if you can.