Biscotti and a Break for the Blog

Biscotti used to seem just those rock-hard objects in big plastic containers at coffee stands until I made some. Now I think of them as packed full of almonds and eggs – and as part of hospitality.

Wanting to make anything in Jack Bishop’s “The Complete Italian Vegetarian Cookbook,” I tackled biscotti. Bishop says toast a cup of almonds at 350° till they are fragrant (about eight minutes). Let the almonds cool and then chop roughly. Leave the oven on.

In a large bowl and using a whisk, combine two cups of flour, one cup of sugar, one-half teaspoon baking powder, and a pinch of salt.

Beat with a fork two eggs, two egg yolks, and a teaspoon of vanilla.

Pour over the flour mixture and combine. Then knead the dough (Bishop says till smooth – mine was really sticky – so sticky that I had one of those moments of questioning whether I added two cups of flour?) Knead the chopped almonds into the dough.

Eventually I could turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and divide it in two – (it wants to stick to the counter – so the flour helps).

I shaped each piece into a long flat object – aiming for about three inches wide by 12 inches (mine was pretty rustic). Place on an oiled and floured, large baking sheet about four inches apart. Brush with the last egg – beaten.

Bake about 35 minutes, till “firm to the touch and lightly browned on top” – they looked beautiful.

Biscotti means “twice baked” in Italian – so after cutting one-inch wide diagonal pieces (do it while hot and hold on with a tea towel or oven mitt), put them back on the baking sheet. Then bake about ten more minutes. They’ll be crisp.

Frances Mayes tells tales of vin santo – each family’s special wine served to guests, often with biscotti (the crispness dunks perfectly). I like the idea of having biscotti sealed in an airtight container to offer with drinks of all kinds.

Italy was all inspiration for me – to paint, to cook, to live life most fully. And here is August. It’s our time to be warm, enjoy the garden and the woods and the mountains. Guests are coming, and there’s work to catch up in between. So a late-summer break is in order for “Her spirits rose…”

But I’ll be back – and I hope you will be, too! Arrivederci – buon divertimento!

St. Francis Joins the Creatures on the Bluff

In depictions of the Annunciation and the Madonna, artists make something their own – pictures distinguished by infants who look like old men, staring straight ahead sadly or like rounded cherubs with curls, angels who speak golden words or hover on high, and Marys in robes humble or regal.

Embellished with gold paint, “Our Lady of the Sunset” by Lorenzetti in the Assisi Basilica used to shine when the setting sun came in a narrow window. This Madonna and baby really engage, they look into one another’s eyes and Mary answers her child’s question with a thumb pointed toward St. Francis.

In Italy I thought I might find a likeness of St. Francis for our garden. Instead we found it in Port Townsend on Water Street! And now he stands between the cosmos that attracts big yellow swallowtail butterflies and the half barrel holding a quince (the chipmunk’s hiding spot). Here St. Francis is surrounded by the natural world he writes of in “The Canticle of the Creatures” – plenty of animals, “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon,” with “air and clouds, clear sky and every sort of weather” to sustain them.

My favorite Madonna scene in Italy was a startlingly white goat with her tiny kid in a grassy green pasture. Separated from the more unkempt flock – they lay bright in the sun so peacefully together.

Here I watch the new fawns with their mothers – snacking on clover, then stretching sidewise on the lawn in the shade looking at the house (remembering how good those petunias and geraniums tasted – eaten right off the front porch).

The other day a fawn bolted in that two-legs-together-leaping run away from the driveway toward the bluff side of the house, frightened by a car. The car drove on, and I heard a repeated mewling noise – like a gull or maybe a kitten – that plaintive sound of confusion and fear. Recovering, it reunited by retracing steps to where it had been following its mother when the car came around the drive.

I am surprised by the pleasure I take in these symbols like Madonna and St. Francis, but something Vernon Lee wrote about her visit to a humble church in Rome rings true. She finds the scene transformed by music and ritual and she speculates: “Is it possible that of religious things only the aesthetic side is vital, universal, is what gives or seems to give a meaning, deludes us into a belief in some spirituality? Sometimes one suspects as much: that the unifying element is not so much religion, as, after all, art.”

In Assisi artists interpret the canticle of St. Francis with drawings and paint tiles with the words pace e bene or pax et bonum. St. Francis and the pagan Green Man in the garden together – peace and good.

Verdure per la Signora

When we first moved here to Washington, I told my old friend that I wanted to learn to cook delicious vegetables (kale and chard I had in mind) without referring to a recipe (she certainly could). Italy inspired me more toward that goal.

At first I ordered pasta – and then noticed the meat-eaters with giant beefsteaks had sides of interesting vegetables. I discovered these sides to be perfect for me when combined with roasted potatoes – another menu staple – and an insalata mista of course.

Once I ordered a gratin – eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini, onions, maybe fennel (roasted fennel was often included). I think it was my favorite meal – but hard to say. Night after night I had beautiful plates of cooked vegetables, another favorite held roasted eggplant, red and yellow peppers, endive, green beans and a little pile of greens – maybe sorrel.

By the time I ordered faglioli al fiasco (beans cooked in a flask!) and verdure bolitte (boiled vegetables), my trust in and desire for Italian vegetables had grown so extreme that I didn’t care how the menu listed the preparation – grilled, baked, roasted, boiled – the vegetables were always flavorful and good (and faglioli an extra treat).

People in Tuscany (and Umbria – and most of my family) like meat when they dine out, so when the waiter brought my beans and boiled vegetables meal, he looked puzzled and glanced for guidance at the waiter who took our order. He rolled his eyes and indicated la signora with a shrug of his shoulders.

I loved the variety in those inspiring gatherings of vegetables. We have beautiful vegetables in Washington – and I’ve been trying to cook them without a lot of fuss or stalling. Turnip greens or chard, so fresh and huge, they won’t fit in the fridge? Grab an onion and the olive oil – and cook!

Summer – molte verdure – happy!

Poets Make Places

A vacation allows me to throw away all my usual rules about reading – no novels in the daytime being the most affected. On our long airplane flight to Italy, I began “Niccolò Rising” – the first novel in Dorothy Dunnett’s series “The House of Niccolò.” (Long ago I read Dunnett’s other big series – “The Lymond Chronicles” – delicious historical novels.)

Flying toward 21st century Europe, I walked the streets, adventured with characters from the 15th. When we arrived, the imaginary world in my head was in perfect step. I pictured tiny streets and squares filled with festivals and people of yore, and looked past tourists in tank tops standing by Roman gates to see Niccolò in velvet breeches. Dunnett’s tale is of a young man – a little rascal and a lot goodhearted – rising from poverty in Bruges as part of the new merchant class, and of women smart and brave.

Before I left home I read Frances Mayes’s, “Everyday in Tuscany,” and learned about Vernon Lee. I ended up reading only “Niccolò” at night, on trains, or one happy morning at the villa, but I took Lee’s book “The Spirit of Rome” on my iPad. These home weeks I’ve been loving her book (written in 1898, it’s available in reprinted editions and free on any electronic book).

Lee writes about the Italy of the century before last, in the throes of unification when much construction revealed historical underpinnings – buildings and ruins so accessible to Lee’s wanderings. Reading the book, I’m forever turning to Wikipedia to comprehend her references, but I understand when she says: “Poets really make places.”

Mayes must like that statement. In her first book she wrote about buying an abandoned Tuscan farmhouse, Bramasole. Mayes’s recent books are travel writing, love songs to Italy – about food and sights and her life in Cortona. (They would make great travel guides.)

Back home I read “Bella Tuscany” where Mayes asks rhetorically, what depletes and what replenishes. “What wrings you out and truly, what rinses you with happiness?” She answers: “What comes from my own labor and creativity, regardless of what anyone else thinks of it, stays close to the natural joy we all were born with and carry always.”

A reminder that energizes for all sorts of work – cooking, the garden – a poem.