Christmas is a very sentimental time for Italians - they make a huge effort to go home, wherever that may be. The saying is: Natale con i tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi": Christmas with your loved ones, Easter with whomever. And food, as you would expect, plays a major part in the festivities when everyone is gathered around the table.
The most important celebration of the season is reserved for Christmas Eve, la vigilia, when Italians eat only fish and vegetables. It is a day of abstinence but clearly, not fasting. It is called un giorno di magro, literally, a lean day, a day without fat. We'll see about that.
Once upon a time, it was unthinkable to celebrate Christmas Eve without eels, capitone, and baccala' (see previous post). But, fresh, live eels have always been hard to come by in Australia and baccala' is an acquired taste, so it is usual to eat fish, prawns, oysters, anchovies and vongole or pipis. One year, when we were in Italy with our uncle and cousins, it was decided to keep the eels in the pond with its ornate fountain. On the morning of Christmas Eve, the water had frozen over and we had to chip our way in with chisels to liberate the eels. Thereafter, it was back to the laundry with nondescript plastic buckets and colanders to retrieve the slippery critters. Eels are always bought live so there is never a question of their freshness.
Why this fascination with eels at Christmas time? Certainly the idea for it's inclusion in the feast is a pagan, or at least pre-Christian, preoccupation and eels were consumed even as early as Etruscan times. Again, it highlights the meeting of the sacred and profane in the observance of Christian rituals. The eel, a water snake, like life itself, returns anew with every festival. The female eel, much sweeter and flavoursome than its male counterpart, is called anguilla when young. When it gets bigger and ready for the Christmas table it may be 60 cm long and by now it is called capitone. It was my father's work to cut off its head and tail, and coil it for the grill or cut it into pieces to be stewed with white wine, peas and bay leaf in umido, in its juices.
At home we sometimes had 7 courses, or at least 7 items on the table, to represent the 7 sacraments, but it was also common for us to have 13 courses, one for each of the apostles plus Jesus. Until the family grew with in-laws and and alternating visiting rights, our cenone, the big feast, was cast in stone, its rituals forming a necessary sense of continuity in a strange new land. The table was always set with nuts, glace' fruits, dried figs looped on a string like a pearl necklace called sciosciole, and fresh cherries. We ate our eel, usually grilled, served with olive oil and lots of lemon to cut through the fattiness. Then we had baccala' cooked three ways - in tomato sauce, in batter and as a salad with lots of parsley and lemon. Of course, there was pasta - but simply prepared with anchovies, garlic and toasted breadcrumbs. Old traditions fade away. Now, we 'make do' with prawns and mayonnaise, crayfish with spaghetti. But we finish, as always, with panettone and torrone.
Christmas' two-day feast continues on Christmas Day. We are blessed by being part of my sister-in-law's boisterous family celebrations. Until recently, there were four generations at the buffet, ranging from bis-nonni (great grandparents) in their 80s to new born babies. It is chaotic, loud and joyous. Here the menu remains unchanged but when I was young and still living with my parents, we often began with tortellini in brodo, stuffed pasta shapes in a rich chicken broth. Over the years though, the centrepiece became my mother's decadently rich lasagna. This was followed, leisurely, by cotolette, crumbed chicken, meatballs, green beans and a salad of cauliflower, black olives, anchovies and capers. My auntie, Zia Giovannina, always made the struffoli - a wreath of diced and fried sweet pastry, glazed with a spicy honeyed syrup then decorated with silver candied balls and red glace' cherries. Its origins are clearly Arabic but it has come to symbolise wealth and good luck for Neapolitan families who need both throughout the year.
THE SWEET THINGS OF A MATTO CHRISTMAS
Photo credits: Recipe prepared for SALife Magazine. Photography Tony Lewis.
This recipe, more like nougat than traditional soft torrone, eliminates the one hour of constant stirring on the stove top that is required to make the latter. But, it requires fast work, a sugar thermometer and accurate measurements.
2.5 cups caster sugar
1 cup liquid glucose
1/3 cup honey
2 egg whites
200 g pistachio or roasted almonds
110 g dried cranberry
Put sugar, glucose and honey in a saucepan on low heat until sugar has dissolved. Increase to boiling until liquid reaches 140C on a sugar thermometer. Line the base of a baking tin, 20 cm square, with rice paper. Beat egg whites until stiff. Add liquid sugar mixture beating all the while. Fold in pistachio and cranberry. Cover with rice paper and flatten. Set for 8 hours.
Do not put into fridge.
In the 1920s Angelo Motta commercialised the Milanese tradition of rich Christmas breads, speckled with raisins, chocolate pieces and candied citron. There are many producers now, some are spectacularly good. Our current favourite is Loison but Flamigni is also fragrant, rich and light. Both are available at Schinella’s at Prospect, Mercato at Campbelltown and Lucia's in the Central Market.
However, if you want to try your hand at making your own, my go-to authority on Italian baking is Celebrating Italy, Carol Field, William Morrow and Co. NY and The Italian Baker, also Carol Field, Harper and Row. NY. True to her rigorously exacting form, Ms Field gives us a recipe with three doughs and two risings plus these instructions to “fit it...into a busy life”: “Make the sponge-first dough combination in the morning and let it rise during the day; come home from work, make the second dough, shape it, and let it rise in a cool kitchen during the night. Get up the next morning and the panettone is ready to go into the oven where it will dome dramatically”. (Celebrating Italy.)
You may also like to try a pandoro. Our family is quite promiscuous in its choice – we love both pandoro and panettone. But I know some families who come to blows if the ‘wrong’ one appears on Christmas morning. Here’s the solution: buy both.
There is a vast difference between the two cakes. Panettone has its origins in Milan. As the name implies, it is a big, enriched bread. It has an involved preparation as Carol Field outlines and must rise and fall three times before being baked to guarantee its airy lightness. The paper moulds ensure the distinctive high domes. These paper moulds can be purchased at Mercato, Lower North East Road. I like to make small individual cakes and for this I save a few tins from canned beans, tomatoes and even tuna.
I studied Carol Field’s The Italian Baker (see previous mention) and Giallo Zafferano (www.giallozafferano.it/ricette) and decided to simplify matters where I could.
FOR THE OVERNIGHT BIGA (SPONGE)
3/4 cup plain flour
¼ tsp instant yeast (look for brands like Lowan or Mauri)
1/3 cup room temperature water
biga dough plus:
2 ¼ cups plain flour
1/4 cup lukewarm water
2 large eggs
1/4 cup softened unsalted butter
1 tsp pure vanilla essence (sometimes I use orange blossom water, it’s up to you)
1 tbsp instant yeast
1 tsp salt
½ cup sugar
½ cup raisins
1-2 tbsp brandy or sweet white wine
½ cup chopped citron
½ cup chopped chocolate pieces
½ cup chopped glace’ orange
2 tbsp grated orange rind, zest only
1 egg, beaten for glaze
To make the biga: Combine the starter ingredients in a medium-sized mixing bowl, cover, and allow them to rest overnight on the bench. At the same time, soak the raisins in the alcohol in a separate small bowl.
To make the dough: Combine the biga with all of the dough ingredients, make sure the raisins are well drained, and mix. Knead them together until smooth and elastic either by hand or as I did, with a mixer fitted with a dough hook. Knead until the dough is no longer sticky, it will still be a little ‘tacky’ but should come away from your hands.
Allow the dough to rise, covered, for about 2 hours, or until it's puffy and almost doubled.
Knock back and knead briefly before shaping the dough into a ball. Lightly grease the inside of a paper mould and place the kneaded ball into it. Cover, let the dough rise until it rises above the top of the mould. Depending on the ambient temperature of the kitchen, this could take about 1-2 hours.
Bake the bread in a preheated 180C oven for 20 minutes; then reduce the heat to 160C and bake for 40 minutes, tenting with aluminium foil if the crust appears to be browning too quickly. My oven is fan forced and fierce so you will need to be in synch with your oven’s behaviour.
Remove the panettone from the oven and cool completely.
Pandoro, on the other hand, comes from Verona originally. It’s name means, “golden bread” and traditionally it is made in a star shaped mould and dusted heavily with icing sugar to represent snow on an alpine mountain top. Traditionally, it does not contain fruit, though you may like to include very finely chopped lemon zest. If you decide to follow Carol Field’s recipe in The Italian Baker, add at least ½ cup extra sugar in the first dough in her recipe. Decrease the temperature to 180C fan forced and then 160C and increase the baking time for a large mould by around 30 minutes. I have again simplified Ms Field’s version but you will still need to set aside a day, obviously doing other things during the laborious risings.
Makes two cakes. If you don’t have two star shaped tins, like mine in the photo below, buy a jumbo tin of peeled tomatoes during the year and save the tin or use a large brioche tin.
BIGA OR SPONGE
½ cup luke warm water
1 tbsp dry yeast
1 whole egg
1 tbsp sugar
½ cup plain flour
5 cups flour
4 large eggs
1 cup caster sugar
3 tbsp softened, unsalted butter
½ cup water
1 tsp pure vanilla essence
Combine all ingredients for the biga, cover and leave for an hour or until doubled.
To make the dough in two steps:
In a large mixer bowl fitted with a dough hook, combine 2 egg yolks, ½ cup of sugar, butter and water.
Combine the ingredients. Add the sponge and mix. Gradually add 3 cups of the flour, one cup at a time, blending after each addition. Increase the speed to medium-low and beat the dough for 3 to 4 minutes. The dough will be soft and a little sticky at this point.
Grease another bowl with butter, add the dough and turn to coat. Cover the bowl with plastic and put in a warm place to rise for about 2 hours.
Punch down the dough and make a well in the middle of it. Add 1 cup more flour, the remaining eggs, the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar, and the vanilla. Knead the dough in the bowl with a mixer to combine the added ingredients, then continue kneading for about 5 minutes, or until the dough is soft and smooth. I found it difficult to knead by hand, and kept adding more flour which made my first attempt rather tough. Now, I use my Kitchen Aid with dough hook. But you might need to add additional flour, a little at a time. Put the dough in a large greased bowl. Turn to coat the dough and again cover with plastic wrap and a towel. Let rise for another 2 hours.
Butter two pandoro moulds or large brioche tins.
Punch down the dough and divide it in half. Form each piece of dough into a ball. Place each ball into the prepared moulds and cover with plastic. Let rise for 1-2 hours or until dough is 3/4 of the way up the moulds.
Preheat oven to 180C
Brush the top of the breads with egg.
Bake for 45- 60 minutes, or until tops are brown and a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean. Let the breads cool in the pans for 10 minutes. Remove from moulds and cool completely on wire racks.
Sprinkle heavily with icing sugar. Slice into horizontal, star-shaped slices to serve.