Home-made pizza
culinary, italy, travel, Uncategorized

Confinement cooking in Pisa

I recently queried my Facebook friends with the following question: What is your takeaway from confinement?

Being confined in our homes for, on average, 2-3 months at a time was such a peculiar, unpredicted, and unexpected experience. I think every person who lived through it will have something to say about what they learned, or took away, from those weeks cooped up inside.

Our experience was so strange because we weren’t in our own home, in our own city, with any of our usual references or comforts to turn to. The comforts here in Pisa are actually more exciting than the usual ones in our Paris suburb: piping hot pizza delivered from the wood-fired oven down the block, the Best Roast Chicken of My Life stuffed with sage leaves doused in butter and salt from the deli around the corner, or artisanal dark chocolate, walnut, and hazelnut gelato delivered in half-kilo Styrofoam containers from one of our two favorite shops in town. We didn’t have a group of friends in Pisa that we had to avoid running into for fear of breaking social distancing rules. Not seeing anyone, especially after our best couple of friends left the region to tend to an ailing father, was in fact quite easy. But at the end of the day, not seeing anyone, in particular, was massively difficult for me. Re-reading through journal entries I wrote just two months ago, I remember the dread that would creep inside me in the late afternoon, as I lay on “the beach” a.k.a. the windowsill of our apartment as the sun shone down, staring down at the empty sidewalk on the Lungarno, and the quiet river reflecting the emptiness of the streets.

Sicilian mini pastries at Vecchio in Pisa

Sicilian mini pastries at Vecchio in Pisa

To keep myself busy, I took to the kitchen. I would have expected to have certain takeaways from these six months in Italy: I wonder, however, how different they are from the takeaways I would have had during a “normal” year.

The things I learned about food here are things that seem like they should have been obvious to me all along. There is something about home cooked food in Italy, isn’t there? The list begins short and gets longer as we go along:

  1. Always have home-made marinara or ragù (meat sauce) in the fridge. This is particularly pertinent since we are young parents.
  2. Any good savory dish begins with three ingredients: onion, celery, and carrot, sautéed in olive oil.
  3. That strange wooden board lying against the wall in the pantry of our furnished apartment is a pasta-making platform, or working board. (If any Italians know the real name, please, tell me.) I realized this one day after watching many episodes of Pasta Grannies.

    Home-made pasta

    Home-made pasta

  4. Food goes bad when it’s exposed to air. Studying the packages of fresh pasta we get at the supermarket, I tried to understand how they could have an expiration date at least a month into the future without any chemical additives… It was the same for the hunks of mortadella (bologna) from the butcher. How could they possibly last for three months in their vacuum package, but go bad a week or so after being opened? Air, my friends. Air. And the arrival of bacteria.
  5. Granita, or Italian ice as it’s sometimes called, is to Italians what ice cream is to the rest of the world: a summertime treat. Ice cream is to Italians what pastries are to the rest of the world: an almost all-the-time treat. A Swiss friend asked me to try to figure out when the “season” was for almond granita, since a place he likes in Genoa once told him that it wasn’t the season. As soon as it started to get very hot in Pisa, I figured out the answer to his question: when the heat rises, the ice cream shops begin selling their granita (and the Italians begin eating it. In droves.)

    Melon granita from De' Coltelli Gelateria in Pisa

    Melon granita with whipped cream from De’ Coltelli Gelateria in Pisa

  6. Yeast is complicated. And trying to bake in a new country is challenging. I knew that already, after over a decade of trying to adapt American baking recipes in France. The ingredients available at hand are never exactly the same as the country you came from, and if you came from another country, they’re probably not the same as the person whose recipe you’re following. In France, I had gotten used to the ingredients and had a certain automatic process in terms of baking. Here in Italy, however, the two different kinds of yeast I purchased had their own sets of (differing) instructions. For the first time ever, I had the bright idea to follow the yeast’s instructions on what to do with it, rather than the recipe instructions. My Europhied brain helped in this process: how many grams of flour, instead of how many cups, and each kind of yeast indicated how many grams of yeast to use for 100 or 500 grams of flour.

    Home-made pizza

    My daughter’s favorite food takeaway from Italy: la pizza

The result was quite magical. Thick, chewy pizza dough, the kind of dough that has its own soul. My daughter was thrilled with all the experimenting I did with pizza dough, and I think we will be bringing the pizza habit back home with us next month.

The year isn’t over yet, and the societal upheavals going on following the coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter uprising in the United States have more lessons to bring us, still. Whenever things get overwhelming or frightening, you’ll find me in the kitchen, with a digital scale and a bag of flour, my toddler quickly begging me “voir ! voir !” (see! See!) and pointing to the oven, “pizza! Pizza!”







Making peace with Béchamel

Making peace with Béchamel


Most of the cooks in my family made their lasagna with a ricotta cheese mixture, blended with an egg. Almost no one bothered to slave over the stove stirring béchamel for lasagna. Mom did make a “white sauce” as a base for her macaroni and cheese, but I couldn’t be troubled to learn how to blend the milk into the roux, and generally ignored sauces thickened with flour as an unnecessary part of my culinary education.

Then came along my French husband, who actually hates all things creamy, but learned how to make lasagna from a roommate in college who deemed that the béchamel was absolutely necessary.

For the last five years I have left him completely in charge when it comes to lasagna. But here and now, quarantined in this beautiful apartment in Pisa where we find ourselves riding out the coronavirus crisis, I decided it was time to put a couple new tricks in my back pocket.

Here is my take on béchamel, which I’ve made four times in the last two weeks. May it make your quarantine period a little tastier, a little brighter.


Béchamel – or White Sauce
Yield: enough for one six-portion lasagna

100g butter
100g flour
700-1000ml milk
1 bay leaf
salt to taste
pinch freshly grated nutmeg

A note on thickness: we like the sauce to be on the thicker side, so we stop adding milk after about 700-750ml. If you want the sauce thinner you may end up adding up to a liter, to your discretion. Feel free to STOP adding milk at any point, stir, and see if the sauce’s thickness is to your liking. If you want it thinner, keep adding milk.

Start by pouring the milk into a medium saucepan over low heat. You want the milk to be warm before you pour it into your béchamel, but not boiling – if at any point you notice it beginning to bubble, turn the heat to the lowest setting or simply turn it off.

Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium-low heat. Stir gently with a long-handled wooden spoon. As soon as all of the butter has melted, add the flour and begin stirring, gently but constantly, with the wooden spoon.

The butter/flour mixture should homogenize, and bubble ever so slightly. Do not let it brown. Keep stirring. You want to cook this starter or “roux” long enough so that the flour loses its raw taste, but without browning the mixture. Once it has gotten thicker, elastic-like, begin to add a small pour of milk. Stir generously.

At this point, add the bay leaf to the pot. Stir the mixture continuously and rigorously, so as to eradicate any lumps in the flour. Scrape down any dried bits on the sides of the pot. Keep adding milk bit by bit, letting the mixture completely homogenize in between each pour. You may want to lower the heat on the béchamel if it is bubbling or thickening too quickly. You can also move the pan on and off the heat as you work to prevent it from over-heating.

Add a pinch of salt (start with a half teaspoon,) and a good grate of fresh nutmeg (four or five grates on a small hand grater. Continue to add the milk.

Once you think the sauce has reached your desired thickness, take it off the heat, still stirring. Sample it on a teaspoon to check for seasoning, adding salt and nutmeg if desired.

It will slowly settle into its state of thickness and you can stop stirring, letting it cool down a bit before you use it in your next preparation: lasagna, gratin, or other dish.


Blueberry Cobbler

This is one of those dishes that missed its final photo shoot. It’s just so good that when you pull it out of the oven, you gaze in awe for a moment, and then immediately leave the room because you know that if you look at it any longer you’ll never have the willpower to give it the 15 minutes or so it needs to solidify and cool off before you should thrust a spoon into it. When you come back to heap a serving onto a small dessert plate, the last thing you could possibly thing about is grabbing your camera before you dig in.

I made this twice this summer, the first time in my mother’s kitchen in Connecticut. While traveling in the States late July, I bought a pint of blueberries almost every day and ate them as snacks while wandering around New York City in the heat, while reading in the Amtrak, and while sitting on a friend’s back porch outside of Boston.

When we got to my mother’s house, I told my French counterpart that I needed to make a blueberry dessert while we were in New England because the blueberries in France cost around twice as much. I nosed through my mother’s cookbooks, eyeing the recipes of my youth, but deciding to make something much simpler – no sour cream, no buttermilk – just blueberries, a bit of sugar, and a touch of topping.

The first weekend we were back in France we were perusing our usual Marché Aligre on a weekend morning, when I spotted a fruit seller on the corner of the square – Les myrtilles, 1 euro les deux ! 

Blueberries - two pints for a euro

Blueberries – two pints for a euro

In disbelief, I approached the plastic pint containers, expecting the berries to be covered in mold. I picked up two, three, four boxes – not moldy. I was sure the berries wouldn’t last very long (since the cheapest fruits at the market are usually waiting to be consumed immediately,) but I bought six boxes to the hefty tune of 3 euros. (Usually, a one-pint box of blueberries will cost 4-6 euros.)

I re-made my cobbler, and found that, unexpectedly, it actually tasted a bit better here in France – thanks to the better quality of our butter (sorry, Americans!)

Preparing the cobbler - before topping

Preparing the cobbler – before topping

Blueberry Cobbler
Adapted from Mark Bittman’s recipe: http://markbittman.com/blueberry-cobbler/

500-600g (5-6 cups) blueberries
200g (1 cup) granulated sugar, divided
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
75g (½ cup) all purpose flour
115 grams of butter (1 US stick) softened, plus scant extra for the dish
pinch salt
½ teaspoon baking powder
1 egg, lightly beaten
½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Rinse the berries and dry them – I do this by letting them sit on the windowsill for an hour or so. Butter an 8 inch (20cm) square ceramic dish, and preheat the oven to 375F/190C.

Gently pour the berries into a large mixing bowl and toss them with 1/2 cup sugar and the cornstarch, mixing carefully but well enough to ensure no lumps of cornstarch remain, then pour them into the baking dish.

Pour the other 1/2 cup of sugar into the mixing bowl along with the flour, salt, and baking powder, and mix well. Cut the butter into thumbnail-sized cubes and incorporate it into the dry mixture along with the egg and vanilla, being careful not to let it get too soft. I mixed it together with my hands, with a bit more force than tossing a salad, pressing the flour and sugar mixture into the butter cubes with my thumbs.

Once you have a mostly uniform, but sticky and thick, batter mixture, spoon it out into heaping tablespoons on top of the blueberries.

Bake for 30-45 minutes, checking after 20 minutes, until it is fully golden and browning at the edges.

Let it sit for at least 15 minutes before you dig in!



Tsoureki, and overcoming loss

With most of my family firmly planted on the other side of an ocean, I had spent a lot of time thinking about how I would feel, what I would do, the day a dear loved one would pass. During the first few years abroad, I panicked every time the thought came to mind: what will I do? I can’t afford to fly home. My heart would seize up and waves of guilt and helplessness would sow their seeds.

Years past. I got older and became more financially secure. I relaxed knowing that if the day were to come and I felt the need to hop immediately on a plane to Boston or New York, it would not be completely impossible. My preemptive grief waned. I worried less.

More recently, my perspective has changed. Maybe it’s all that yoga, maybe it’s India, maybe it’s the dabbling in meditation: but I no longer felt like I would need to book the next flight out if “something bad happened.” Finances aside, I felt that if someone I loved had come to the end of a long happy life, I would be able to mourn their passing without jumping in an airship and scurrying back to my native land.

Tsoureki, Greek Easter bread

Tsoureki, Greek Easter bread

Last winter, when I shared my Grandmother’s family bread recipe, a dear friend in Greece shared a couple more with me. One, she said, looks very similar to my bread but is usually made at Easter. I kept it aside and thought, if I had the time, I would bake the bread in come spring.

At the end of March, my Grandmother’s health took a steep turn. She had a stroke and, less than a week later, left us peacefully. I learned that despite years of imagining this scenario, I still couldn’t avoid the roller coaster of emotions I would feel now that the day had come. I still couldn’t help but take a look at last-minute plane ticket prices, couldn’t not contemplate, at the least, sprinting home to be there for her last breaths.

Tsoureki, Greek Easter bread

Tsoureki, Greek Easter bread

Grandpa and Dad reassured me, insisted there was nothing I could do from near or afar except think good thoughts for her and wish for the best. So, on the day of her funeral, April 3rd, I stayed put in my kitchen, and I did something that she would have enjoyed doing with me. I made a new bread recipe, and perhaps, created a new tradition.

Tsoureki is seasoned with ground cherry pits (mahlab), and a special kind of tree sap called mastic. It’s sweet flavor sings the arrival of spring, and hints at summer yet to come.

Tsoureki, Greek Easter bread

Tsoureki, Greek Easter bread

For the tsoureki recipe, check out My Greek Dish.


Transatlantic Chowder

I read the Wikipedia article about Quahogs and I am transported to another place and time.

It is the summer of 2002 and I am 17 years old. I’ve just graduated from high school. In addition to my usual part-time job at an upscale local supermarket, I’ve taken another job at what people in my part of the world affectionately refer to as a “clam shack.”

The Cove Fish Market was a small store selling fresh fish and lobsters in the front, and a clam shack in the back. I’d spend hours every day spooning ladles of chowder into Styrofoam cups (the clear-broth, “Rhode Island style” was home made. The creamy-broth, “New England style” came in frozen.)

The team at the Cove was a mixture of fresh-faced, long-haired college girls home for the summer, and rough-edged, part-time alcoholic pot head townie guys who had started out as dishwashers.

Paul, who owned the Cove was at least 80 years old, made the best chowder I’d ever had. I didn’t care for “clear-broth” chowder one bit until I started working there. The soft blend of the broth with the cubed potatoes – the finely chopped Quahog clams – I asked my mother what she thought the secret was. “I hear he uses salt pork as a base.”

Only one guy on staff knew the recipe. The chowder needed to be prepared a day in advance, and Jay would start it on an outdoor gas hob behind the kitchen. Onions would sweat under the hot August sun in salt pork fat. I was too young to get a good sense of the recipe, and too busy spooning chowder and filling orders for lobster rolls and fried clams to ever get a good idea of his method – and for years I kept telling myself that clam chowder was one of those things I’d get around to making “one of these days.”

I was recently issued a cooking challenge to finally tackle clam chowder – albeit, involving goat’s cheese and chorizo. I give you this – which turned out smooth and silky, and will definitely be made again in this house before winter’s end.

Clam remnants

Transatlantic Chowder

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Grandma Joyce’s Christmas Bread

Every family has taste traditions around different holidays they celebrate together. Be it a particular aunt’s potato salad that always made it to a summer picnic, or even your mom’s awful overcooked, over-buttered green beans that no one ever said anything about at Thanksgiving – but for those who grew up celebrating Christmas, there is almost always an annual sweet treat kids and grownups alike look forward to when the days are at their shortest (speaking from the Northern hemisphere, of course.)

My family couldn’t possibly have imagined Christmas without our Grandmother Joyce’s Christmas Bread. It’s sort of like challah bread, sort of like Finnish pullah – but if you try to call it anything else to my cousins, aunts, and uncles – we don’t want to hear about it. Christmas Bread is just Christmas Bread.

Like snow that had fallen on the bread, she’d decorate the soft buttery loaves with a simple white icing. The chopped red and green candied cherries on top were like little elves’ sleds skiing down the slopes of the buttery braided bread. The bright red, white, and green holiday colors always showed through the wax paper bags that she packed them in, folded and sealed with care with a name tag for each family.

At the peak of her Christmas Bread baking career, Grandma Joyce would prepare over 25 loaves during the month of December. She’d photocopy her recipe and make a list on the back of all the people she planned on giving a loaf to. On the grease-stained and torn copy I have, the lists on the back are from 1991 and 1993.

Christmas Breads

Christmas Breads

The original recipe comes from a copy of Parade magazine from a December long gone – not sure which one – and Grandma modified it slightly over the years, I have modified it still.

I’ll be eating some tomorrow morning, as I always have on December 25, and as I always will.

Jen's Christmas Bread

Jen’s Christmas Bread

Grandma Joyce’s Christmas Bread

Makes three loaves

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