If you happen to walk by a copy of Southern Italian Desserts, I challenge you to keep on moving. Yeah, don’t stop. Just ignore that cover. Go on, take the next step. No, wait. Oh.
If you are human, if you are a foodie, then that cover is going to make you pause. It certainly did me. A pastry top, sugar, pistachios, and something deeply red inside. What, I asked myself, is this?
It is the Crostata al Gelo di Mellone, a watermelon pudding tart from Sicily. A short crust pastry is the home for a watermelon pudding that is cooked, not on the stove, but inside the lattice-topped pastry. Exceptionally beautiful, Suzen and I have this on our “make when the watermelons finally arrive” list.
Author Rosetta Costantino was born in Calabria but raised in Oakland from age fourteen. She earned a chemical engineering degree at Berkeley and had a successful professional engineer. But, it was the draw of another kind of chemistry that finally won her heart. Today, with her mother, she teaches Southern Italian cooking and writes very successful cookbooks [My Calabria: Rustic Family Cooking from Italy’s Undiscovered South].
This new book features dessert delicacies from across Southern Italy: Calabria, Campania, Basilicata, Puglia, and Sicily. Southern Italy is often described as poor, but I think it is fairer to describe it as more traditional and more bound to the earth than the “richer” Northern Italy.
I’ve driven the Po valley up north, past the miles and miles of factories with the same metal chimneys and polished glass headquarters buildings. In the south, I’ve simply walked two lane roads, basked in the heat, and smelled the rocket arugula that is a “weed” on the side of the road. I like the South.
We often write about a country having regional foods. Italy is the benchmark. It’s not just “regional” in the sense of Sicily versus Tuscany. You can be a village and find two “better” ways of cooking a dish on the opposite ends of the only road that passes from thru. There is variety in abundance in Italy and surely in Southern Italy.
Which is why Southern Italian Desserts is so important. In the south, traditions — often coupled to annual religious feasts — have kept a dessert heritage alive. This heritage — threatened by modern manufactured food and demographic trends — is a world culinary treasure. This book is major step to saving that heritage and promoting it. Rosetta has traveled extensively throughout Southern Italy, eaten the original dishes, befriended professional chefs and local food experts, and compiled this encyclopedia with meticulous authenticity. The recipes come with one or two or more pages of instructions to take you through every twist and turn and filling step. It’s all deliciously doable.
You will find here combinations that, unless you’ve walked those southern streets, you will not have experienced:
- Ricotta and Pear Tart
- Ricotta and Pistachio Mousse Cake
- Strawberries with Limoncello
- Italian Sponge Cake Filled with Pastry Cream and Strawberries
- Mandarin Orange Pudding
- Eggplant Layered with Sweetened Ricotta and Chocolate Sauce
Yes, that last idea really is an eggplant-based dessert. The picture in the book can only be describe as enticing. No, it doesn’t look like eggplant. Suzen and I will be making this dish and we’ll happily report on the results. If you think the idea is still too weird, I can assure you that the addition of sugar, ricotta, almonds, crushed amaretti cookies, and lots of orange peel is certain to generate a flavor profile that is not “vegetable.”
If you page through Southern Italian Desserts, you are going to be captivated. Like me in the picture above, you’ll find yourself putting little stickies on page after page. The only decision is where to begin. My vote is for the Almond Filled Spiral Cookies: a simple nut pastry is rolled out flat, topped with a layer of almonds and orange marmalade and candied orange peel and honey, then rolled up and sliced.
If you need desserts that are gluten free, then you will discover that Southern Italians have employed that option with gusto. Here you’ll find Pistachio Cake and Flourless Almond Cookies with Cherry Preserves.
No matter your dessert passion — cake, cookie, pie or pudding — Southern Italian Desserts will expand your options in delightfully tasteful ways.
Ok, to begin with za’atar is a Middle Eastern spice mix: dry oregano or thyme is mixed with sumac, toasted sesame seeds and salt and then served with olive oil and flat bread as the signature breakfast dish.
Oh, sumac? That is a spice made from the dried and powdered berries of a shrub that is common in the Middle East. The flavor is often described as lemony. Yes, we have our own varieties of sumac growing in North America. They are strikingly beautiful in the fall:
Well, with all that background, that’s almost reason enough for you to buy a wonderful new cookbook: Olives, Lemons, and Za’atar. This post is really a three-fer: book review, restaurant review, and cooking school recommendation. What’s the common denominator: author Raiwa Bishara.
Several months ago Suzen and I were in Collucios, the premier Italian market in Brooklyn. I was hungry so I asked the natural question, “Where should we go from here to eat. Local and great please.”
Now, I expected to be directed to some place with veal, pasta, and endless wine.
“Have you been to Tanoreen?” I was asked.
“Never heard of it,” I admitted. Well, that drew a frown. My status as a foodie was had just been downgraded. A lot.
So the wonderful Collucio people sent us to the premier Middle Eastern restaurant in Brooklyn, no, actually in New York City. Chef Rawia Bishara began as a home cook whose children had friends, friends who kept coming over and over and eating and eating. Rawia was encouraged to open a restaurant, Tanoreen. Going from a home kitchen to a restaurant can be a major transition. Not for Rawia. “I just moved from one kitchen to another,” she smiles. “Everything, everything is the same.”
Suzen and I had a memorable meal that night. Do I remember everything? No, one dish followed another, each surely better than the last. I became confused. And I had this pang of guilt. Middle Eastern food? Well you know about that. Just consider all those food carts and hummus in the deli and …
Middle Eastern food can stand on its own, with any cuisine. Its Mediterranean roots are as deep and dense as Greek, Turkish, Italian, Spanish, or North African. Rich flavors that may be familiar to you, often new ideas that bring a smile in an “ah ha” moment.
Three nights ago, Suzen and I sat in DeGustibus, the 30 year old cooking school in mid-town Manhattan. Located on the 8th floor of Macy’s, DeGustibus benefits from the taste and energy of owner Salvatore Rizzo. He is passionate about food and his guest chefs. At DeGustibus, you sit and watch a chef prepare a full meal, a 2 ½ hour experience. Along the way, as the chef dazzles with each dish, a terrific back kitchen crew prepares a full-sized copy of each dish for you. You cannot leave DeGustibus hungry. Impossible after 5 or 6 dream dishes.
And who were we watching as the guest chef? Rawia Bishara. And why? Because last month she published Olives, Lemons, & Za’atar, her celebration of the spectrum of recipes that distinguish Tanoreen. This is Middle Eastern food elevated to a level you probably not have experienced. But you should. And, because the genesis of this food was Rawia watching her mother in the home kitchen, this is home food, the daily food of a food-loving culture. So, these marvelous dishes are certainly attainable by you.
There are ideas here you probably know about, have surely sampled in you foodie life, “common” dishes like:
- Whole stuffed chicken
Oh, but you don’t know about how Raiwa has perfected these dishes.
Her tabouleh uses far less bulgar than many recipes, less mint too, but far more parsley. Raiwa explains that her variation reflects that tabouleh, traditionally only prepared and only eaten by women, varies from village to village. Ingredients and proportions are passionately debated.
Her chicken — which she pronounces correctly to be lavish —is prepared with allspice, nutmeg, and cardamom. And it is stuffed, with a combination that includes yet more spices plus chopped lamb or beef, rice, and tomato. You haven’t had chicken like that. You deserve it and, again, this recipe is well within the reach of any of us.
And the hummus. Actually, there are multiple recipes including her mother’s hummus. Raiwa is a lovely women and outwardly so friendly. But I must say that she has the confidence and presence of an empress. What she says, you will do. And Raiwa is adamant about cooking the chickpeas in boiling water until they fall apart. “Maybe two hours,” she waves her arm. “Whatever it takes. It must be soft.”
I’ve eaten hummus. I know hummus. Well, I thought I knew hummus. I have never had anything so soft and charmingly divine in my life. That’s not true: I remember the first time I had the French cheese epoisse. This humus offers the same love at first bite feeling. The status as a wonderful food experience.
Suzen and I are doing hummus this weekend, straight from this important book. We’ll pass along the recipe, but you don’t have to wait for us. Olives, Lemons, & Za’atar is at your bookstore. Don’t hesitate