#holiday

La Sportellina – a Tuscan traditional Easter cake

The season of Lent in the old days, was by precept a time of fasting and repentance, so people would resort to homemade products only. It was a common and very heartfelt religious tradition, especially in the countryside. Most of the peasant families’ meals consisted of soups, polenta, lots of vegetables form their own farm or just some homemade bread and freshly picked herbs. Adding a pilchard in oil every now and then was a real delicacy that not all could afford. So no wonder on Easter, people would indulge on abundant dishes and plenty of meat, generously soaked by a glass or two of good wine!

The food preparations usually began during the Holy Week before Easter, because everything had to be produced in great quantities, to be shared with families and neighbors as a symbol of gratitude and celebration.

As a child, I remember a great buzz around here, of people going up and down the town’s alleys from early morning until sunset. I could tell Easter was coming just by raising the nose and sniffing the air: suddenly I was engulfed with the sweetest smell of aniseed and freshly baked cake, that used to come from the town’s wood-fired oven. Yes, because at that time, there were no household appliances and not everyone could afford to have their own oven. So during the Easter rush, when women used to prepare lots of oven-baked goods, they had to run up and down the main street with their kneaded doughs to reach the town’s oven when their turn came. Imagine that oven working day and night to bake hundreds of pans of traditional delicacies, which they would take back home once baked. Of course the smell that filled the air back then, was astonishing!

I bet now you’re pretty curious about what actually did they bake, right?! Well, here in Tuscany, we have a special sweet tradition, called “la Sportellina” or “schiacciata di Pasqua” (literally the Easter squashed bread). It’s quite a funny name for a cake that looks anything but squashed, I know! But actually the name comes from the great amount of eggs that need to be cracked (squashed) into the batter.

tuscan-traditional-easter-cake

You see, the connection between ancient traditions and nature is always amazing, because once again nothing is random: at the beginning of the spring season, hens used to lay more eggs than usual, and they had to be consumed pretty fast, since there were no special storing procedures like nowadays. So this Easter cake – like most of this season’s cakes and dishes – was just the perfect way to consume quite a few eggs.

As I said, our mothers and grandmas used to prepare this traditional cake in large quantities, during the Holy Week. It would take a lot of work and patience to make this recipe, due to the rising and baking times, which were very long. Imagine they had to knead and allow the dough to rise, again and again for no less than 5 times, before baking it! That’s another one of the reasons why these cakes were being made in large quantities. Some pieces were then being wrapped and given to the family’s guests and neighbors, others were being offered to the church, to be served on the way out, after the Holy Mass on Easter day, and a few were being left for breakfast in the days after.

In our days, when everything seems so rushed and we’re always in a hurry, it’s hard to think of dealing with such a long and delicate preparation and of course we all know you can easily find it at the supermarket. What you don’t know is the feeling you get when you dip your hands into that dough and start kneading. You take that moment just for yourself, to clear your mind and let your thoughts run free, while the sweet smell of aniseed and mint liqueur fill your nostrils enough to take you back to your childhood days. It doesn’t matter how long it will take, it’ll all be worth it when you see that precious little piece of dough come up and become brown, making you feel proud for once again having kept the tradition alive.

tuscan-traditional-easter-cake-buona-pasqua

The Sportellina Recipe:

1,5 kg 00 flour

50 gr. brewer’s yeast

150 ml milk

7 eggs (plus 1 to brush the surface)

450 gr. sugar

110 gr. extravirgin olive oil

50 gr. butter

50 gr. mint liqueur

50 gr. maraschino

15 gr. aniseed

1 orange (zest and juice)

First of all dissolve the brewer’s yeast into the warm milk, then gradually add in some flour (about 300-400 grams) and start mixing until well incorporated. Knead it into a ball and put it in a bowl to rest for about 2 hours.

After two hours, mix in 3 eggs, 150 gr of sugar, 40 gr. of olive oil and another 400 grams of flour. Then let it rest again, in a warm place until it doubles the volume (this time will take about three hours).

For the third step, add in 2 eggs, 150 gr of sugar, 40 gr of olive oil, 25 gr of mint liqueur, 25 gr. of maraschino and again 400 gr. of flour. Knead it again until all ingredients are well combined and leave it to rest for another 3 hours.

Finally, mix in the rest of the ingredients and knead it for a while, then give it a final 3 hours rest again.

Divide the batter into 3 equal parts and put them into the baking moulds (we use the same ones as for Panettone). Put the moulds in a warm place covered, and let them rise for 4-5 hours, or until the double their volume.

Brush the top of the cakes with the beaten egg and then bake in a preheated oven at 180° C for about 50 minutes, or until the surface becomes brown. Leave them in the oven to rest for 10 more minutes and then let them cool completely before serving.

You can keep the cakes in a plastic bag, in a cool dry place for up to one week, so you can actually bake more pieces and offer them to family and friends as an Easter gift, or you can just have a wonderful breakfast everyday for a whole week! Enjoy!

Baby it’s cold outside!

Tis’ the season to get cozy around a warm fireplace and dive into a delicious hot bowl of soup, while watching the bright yellow leaves being blown by the wind outside. It’s everything you need, to warm up a chilly winter day!

Ok, I know it might sound dramatic a little bit, but seriously, with the cold windy and rainy days we’ve had lately, the temperatures went down even here, in the ever-sunny Tuscany. We’ve even had a couple of snowflakes, mostly over the hilly areas. But hey, it’s December! So while Nature is making its way into the long winter slumber, the rhythms slow down and we can enjoy our home and family gatherings a little bit more. It’s one of our favorite things about the cold season.

fireplace-wood-bread-soup

In older times, a chilly winter day in the countryside was often warmed up by a pot of hot vegetables soup, the ‘ribollita’ or ‘minestra di pane’ (bread soup). A typical peasant dish made from scratch, that deepens its roots in the Middle-ages. Farmers used to prepare a big batch of this hearty vegetable and beans soup, usually on a Friday so they would eat it over the weekend. That’s because not only did they had to make it last for as much as possible to feed the entire family, but it turned out to be even better the day after. So initially they ate the soup with a lot of white Tuscan bread chunks dipped into it (‘minestra di pane’- bread soup) and then re-boiled the leftovers the day after (‘la ribollita’ – the re-boiled bread soup).

bread-soup-dish-ribollita

To this day, the Tuscan bread soup still remains the best way to keep us warm during the cold season and load up on our daily helping of vegetables, because of its perfect combination of carbs, legumes and veggies.

The main ingredient, the one that and gives the whole character to this dish, is the Tuscan kale (or lancinato kale). It’s mandatory for an authentic taste, because you can’t name it ‘ribollita’ if you don’t have the black-leaf kale. We call it ‘cavolo nero’ (translated black cabbage), and it’s a leafy, dark-green type of cabbage, packed with more than 50% of the RDA of vitamins A, C and K, and rich in antioxidants and other essential nutrients, not to mention it’s very low in calories. You can find this super ingredient in every Tuscan farmer’s orchard, from November through spring and it’s best eaten freshly picked, during the cold season.

tuscan-black-leaf-kale

So let’s cut to the chase and talk about the best recipe of ‘Tuscan bread soup’ you’ll ever have. This has been passed down through generations and it’s part of our family’s comfort food cookbook. It’s so simple you can’t go wrong, and so delicious that it’ll fill your house with that special dinner smell that’ll make your tummy rumble.

You’ll need:

a generous amount of extravirgin olive oil freshly cold-pressed

300gr of dry borlotti beans

400gr of Tuscan kale

3 carrots

3 potatoes

1 red onion

1 celery stalk

1 twig of thyme

2 cloves of garlic

2 thick slices of Tuscan prosciutto pork ham

bread-soup-recipe-ingredients-ribollita

In a large pot over a livery fire, pour a generous amount of extravirgin olive oil and add the prosciutto, the carrots, the celery and the onion well chopped. Cover with its lid and stir-fry for about 5 minutes. Add in the rest of the vegetables cut into pieces, the thyme and the beans. Make sure you keep the pieces quite small, the soup should be thick but not chunky. Now pour in at least 1 liter of hot water and 3 four-fingered pinches of salt. Lower the flame, and cook for at least 90 minutes, covered with a lid. Serve this soup piping hot, with a grinding of fresh pepper and chunks of Tuscan white bread dipped into it, stingily rubbed with garlic and generously sprinkled with Tuscan extravirgin ‘olio novo’.

bread-soup-cold-ribollita-dish

A night in the fridge will encourage all the flavors to blend together beautifully and all you’ll need to do the next day is bring the whole pot to a boil again, and enjoy a hot bowl of wonderful ribollita.

The season is just right to taste this Tuscan basic recipe, so why not give it a try and amaze your family with a new delicious and super-nutrient dish that will delight your senses and warmup your winter holidays!

Oh, and remember: when in Italy during the summer months, please don’t ask us for a pot of ribollita, it’s definitely off season! Have a holly jolly winter everyone!

C – for Carnevale

… and other ancient Tuscan traditions

Semel in anno licet insanire” (once a year, it is allowed to act like crazy) – our ancestors used to say on February, during the most bizarre and outgoing celebration of the year.

The Carnival season is a tradition that we are carrying on since medieval times, when jesters used to run through the village, encouraging people – who were then oppressed by the system and used to live in extreme poverty – to parody the values of the society they lived in, and the authority of the severe political and religious commandments, by inverting the roles and creating the Backwards World, where they could disobey the rules and become whatever they wanted for a day, wearing the “clothes” of the character they were joking on, living in redundancy and acting like fools in the cheapest and most rumorous possible way.

MedievalCarnival

This rebellion would help them prepare for the forthcoming Lent season – the austere 40 days of Lent during which they had to abstain from eating meat and follow other ascetic practices, in order to purify their bodies and souls before the Easter festivity. In fact, the word Carnival seems to have Latin origins, as “carne levare” or “carnelevarium” means “giving up on meat”, a practice apparently dated back to the Romans era.

In order to be able to carry on such a commitment of great sacrifice, the Middle Age people would celebrate the Carnival not only by joking and feasting around, but mostly by overindulging on substantial and greasy meals, pints of wine and the sweetest desserts.

In Tuscany we are very bound to our ancient traditions, and fortunately some of them are still an important part of our cultural heritage. When the Carnival festivity comes up, local bakeries fill up their counters with greedy sweet and fried holiday treats, together with the traditional Tuscan dessert, which to this day has kept its original Renaissance recipe. We are talking about the Berlingozzo (berlinˈgɔttso), a soft, moist and flavored donut cake, with one of the quickest and simplest recipes ever, just like our grandmothers used to do it!

This carnival dessert disguised as a breakfast donut, used to be served on Fat Thursday, which in Florence was the day known as Berligaccio. This funny word, was the name of a fifteen-century Tuscan mask, used in Florence during Fat Thursday, and represented by a mascot carried out in effigy through the city’s streets, among the loudest shouts, most colored dances and funny acting.

Berlingaccio Firenze

Just like “Carnevale”, it seems to have a Latin origin as well, from the word “berlengo” which means “table”; this takes us back to the feasting and overindulging tradition of the Medieval period.

We also have a verb descended from it, that you can easily find in most of Boccaccio’s tales, as a proof of the ancient origins of this Tuscan custom. It’s “berlingare” and it means to chatter, or to blather about things with no sense, right after having had a substantial meal and several pints of wine. Giovanni Boccaccio, Certaldo’s local and most famous Late Medieval novelist, poet and humanist, used to make great use of this verb in his works, mostly when talking about or describing a female character, as he would associate it to women’s being so gossipy about everything.

lasciamo stare l’alte e grandi millanterie ch’ella fa quando berlinga coll’altre femmine”() “Ma solamente per voglia di berlingare (…) di che ella è vaghissima, sì ben dir le pare” – Il Corbaccio (Laberinto d’Amore) di Giovanni Boccaccio

 “forget about her great bragging about (herself) she does when she chatters with other females (…) But only for the wish to chatter is she famous, even if she thinks she speaks out right” – Il Corbaccio (Laberinto d’Amore) by Giovanni Boccaccio

The Tuscan Berlingozzo

berlingozzo toscano

This year’s Fat Thursday is approaching, and after telling you all about this special time of the year here in Tuscany, we couldn’t just leave you there craving for a taste of some Tuscan Carnival treats. As we’re preparing for our traditional feast – next 23th of February – here in Certaldo, we want to share with you the joy of preparing and having a byte of this typical Tuscan dessert. So let’s not “chatter” any further and come to our nice and cheerful donut.

It’s all about a couple of fresh egg yolks, beaten with some sugar until pale, mixed with lemon zest and a tablespoon or two of freshly squeezed lemon juice, some extravirgin olive oil and a nice cup of Vin Santo – now this is the secret right here!

berlingozzo toscano

We like our Carnival desserts to be sweet and flavored, but our ancestors didn’t have any artificial flavors at the time; they simply used the home-made products they had, and that’s just what makes it so special. So following the ancient customs, we add in our Tuscan traditional home-made directly-from-our-vineyard Vin Santo: a type of italian dessert wine, usually made from white grape varieties such as Trebbiano and Malvasia, hanged and left to dry out on racks, in a warm and well ventilated area. If you ever come to Certaldo or anywhere near in Tuscany, you can have a taste of this marvelous sweet wine, together with the Cantuccini – our traditional home-made almond cookies, served as a dessert, at the end of your meal. It’s one of our most important landmarks around here, don’t miss it!

berlingozzo toscano

At this point, we just pour in the flour, mixed to some potato starch and a pinch of salt, together with a bit of baking powder. Then gently incorporate the beaten egg whites and pour the dough into a donut shaped baking tin, and into the oven, to bake for about a half an hour… Just enough time for us to sit and sip a nice glass of Vin Santo, while preparing our mask and costumes for the feast. Cheers!

Ingredients: berlingozzo toscano

for a 20 cm. diameter baking tin

2 fresh eggs

75gr. Sugar

1 lemon

50 ml. Vin Santo

50 ml. Extra virgin olive oil

150 gr. Flour

25 gr. Potato starch

6gr. Baking powder

1 pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 170 C degrees

Bake for about 25-30 minutes

Enjoy!