Thursday, February 19, 2009

I think Food History is fascinating! We've all heard about how the slice of potato was accidentally dropped in the hot fat and TA-DA! The French Fry was born. But have you ever wondered what possessed the guy who took the first bite of liver? Or how about the guy who stood and watched a chicken lay an egg and then decided to crack it open and fix a fried egg sandwich? There are foods that can make your shudder at the thought of eating them. If that turns you on, turn on with Bizarre Foods, host Andrew Zimmern travels the world on a fascinating mission to indulge in some of the weirdest foods you can imagine. As for me......

I am too old, too Mid-America, too "into" good food to enjoy such nonsense. Give me a chance to try foods from other countries, to prepare them in my own kitchen, and I am a happy girl! My trips to Italy and Sicily have given me a passion for the food of the Mediterranean. Granted, I gave up the opportunity to "enjoy" a spleen sandwich in Palermo, but I took advantage of everything made of Almonds.
Part of the plum family, the almond tree (Prunus dulcis; Prunus amygdalus) is native to North Africa, West Asia and the Mediterranean. The English word almond is derived from the French amande, which in turn is a derivative of the old Latin word for almond, amygdalus, literally meaning "tonsil plum." Ancient Romans also referred to almonds as "Greek nuts," since they were first cultivated in Greece. Almonds date back in print to the Bible. A recipe from the Forme of Cury, dating back to 1390, uses blanched, ground almonds in a gravy for oysters. Botanically-speaking, almonds are a fruit. On the tree, the fruit or drupe looks like a small, elongated peach with a hard greenish-gray husk. When mature, the husk splits open to reveal the shell which in turn contains the nutmeat. Spanish missionaries are credited for bringing the almond to California, now the world's largest producer of over 100 varieties of almonds.
The moist, cool weather of the coastal missions, however, did not provide optimum growing conditions. It wasn't until the following century that trees were successfully planted inland. By the 1870's, research and cross-breeding had developed several of today's prominent almond varieties. By the turn of the 20th century, the almond industry was firmly established in the Sacramento and San Joaquin areas of California's great Central Valley.Throughout history, almonds have maintained religious, ethnic and social significance. The Bible's "Book of Numbers" tells the story of Aaron's rod that blossomed and bore almonds, giving the almond the symbolism of divine approval.The Romans showered newlyweds with almonds as a fertility charm. Today, Americans give guests at weddings a bag of sugared almonds, representing children, happiness, romance, good health and fortune. In Sweden, cinnamon-flavored rice pudding with an almond hidden inside is a Christmas custom. Find it, and good fortune is yours for a year. thank goodness, the Italians invented the Amaretti!


According to legend, in the early 1700s, a Milanese bishop made a surprise visit to the town of Saronno in Lombardy. A young couple paid tribute to the bishop by welcoming him with their unique homemade cookies, made from crushed apricot kernels and almonds, egg whites, and sugar. The bishop so loved the cookies that he blessed the couple, and the recipe became a local favorite. Today, bakeries throughout the region, and in Italian communities around the world, carry Amaretti di Saronno, but it's worth the (small) effort to make them yourself. The recipe is simple, and fresh from the oven, they have a crisp-yet-tender texture that's beyond compare. This recipe makes about 3 dozen cookies

2 1/4 cups blanched whole almonds (about 12 ounces), plus 15 for garnishing
2/3 cup sugar
2 large egg whites, at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pure almond extract
1/4 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
15 glacéed cherries

Arrange racks in upper and lower thirds of oven and preheat to 350°F. Lightly oil 2 large baking sheets, then line with parchment paper.
In food processor, combine 2 1/4 cups almonds and 1/3 cup sugar. Process until finely ground, scraping down sides once or twice. Set aside.
In electric mixer fitted with whisk attachment, beat egg whites and salt at high speed until soft peaks form. Reduce speed to medium and gradually sprinkle in remaining 1/3 cup sugar. Return speed to high and beat mixture until stiff, shiny peaks form. Gently fold in ground almond mixture and almond and vanilla extracts.
Roll mixture into 1-inch balls, place 2 inches apart on baking sheets, and flatten slightly. Top each with glacéed cherry or almond. Bake until cookies are golden, switching positions of pans halfway through, about 25 minutes. Cool on sheets 5 minutes, then transfer to racks to cool completely.
Cookies keep, wrapped, several days, or frozen, several weeks. Recrisp in warm oven.

Here is another recipe from Italy, this one for my favorite cake. My Grandmother Johnston used to make all of our birthday cakes, usually foot high Angel Food with at least 2" of Seven Minute Frosting. That was great when I was a child, but now I prefer a cake that is much less sweet, something I can enjoy with a glass of Somerset Ridge Ambrosia Dessert Wine. That is why I am sending you this favorite.

Italian Olive Oil Cake

This delicious cake has a hint of orange and a slightly crunchy texture from cornmeal, is moist without being greasy, and is strongly flavored with olive oil.

3 large eggs
1 cup granulated sugar

1 1/2 cups whole milk
1 cup good-quality extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup amaretto liqueur, such as Disaronno
1 tablespoon finely grated orange zest
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup coarse-ground cornmeal
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
Photo by Kate Ramos
Heat the oven to 350°F and arrange a rack in middle. Coat a 13-by-9-inch baking dish or 9-inch round cake pan with olive oil and flour; tap out the excess.
In a large bowl, whisk together eggs and granulated sugar until well blended and light in color. Add milk, olive oil, amaretto, and orange zest and mix well.
In another bowl, stir together flour, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Add egg mixture to the dry ingredients, stirring until just blended (the batter will be slightly lumpy; do not overmix).
Pour batter into the prepared baking dish or pan. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out with only a few crumbs, about 40 to 50 minutes. Remove from the oven and place on a wire rack to cool completely.
When the cake has cooled, run a knife around the perimeter of the pan and invert the cake onto a serving plate. Dust with powdered sugar, cut into 12 pieces, and serve.

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Ponte Vecchio, Florence, Italy

Ponte Vecchio, Florence, Italy
oil painting by Kay Tucker

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Somerset Autumn on Wea Creek
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oil painting by Kay Tucker

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Tempo al Tempo....All in Good Time
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