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.


The Saturation of the Garde-Manger

When we talk about cooking at home (when Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, and the like talk about cooking at home,) one of the most important elements discussed is the upkeep of a plentiful pantry. If you have a few tools to work with in your pantry, you can always make a home-cooked meal for a few people. In my opinion, here are some of the must-haves:

  • canned tomatoes
  • canned fish
  • cooking oils (olive, veg)
  • onions, garlic, shallots
  • hard cheeses (parmesan, grana padano)
  • a few herbs – dried, frozen, or outside (parsley, thyme, oregano)
  • grains (quinoa, rice, bulghur)
  • pasta
  • bouillon cubes or broth

I could keep going but I’ll stop there, because I am learning the hard way that there is such a thing as pantry saturation.

Pantry Saturation

Pantry Saturation

My pantry is a sweet little cupboard called a “garde-manger” in French (literal translation: “keep-to eat.”) It’s tucked along the wall in my kitchen, adjacent to the outside wall of my building. There is a little vent in the back letting in the cool, damp air from the outside.

The other day, while frosting Christmas bread (recipe coming soon, photos here), I began hunting for the slivered almonds to top the bread. Among the various bags and jars in the pantry I dug, dove, slid. I creaked my neck in and peered in the back. They were nowhere to be found. I was nearly certain I hadn’t finished them (I’ve developed this cook’s six-sense, always knowing when a key ingredient has been used up, and whether or not it’s been restocked…) In despair I topped the bread a different way – adding the end of a jar of marmalade to the icing. It wasn’t bad but not perfect, either.

Watch your neck

Watch your neck

Later that day I pulled something else out of the pantry and hiding behind, tada! There were my slivered almonds. Drats.

I come to you today asking for help. How do you organize your pantry? Big, open shelves with identical storage boxes, cleverly marked with a label maker? Alphabetically classified ziplock bags? Or better yet – an excel spreadsheet inventory printed out and taped on the pantry door? I’m leaning towards option number three, but so far I’ve been too lazy to spend a whole day compiling the list.

As an annex to this post, I give you a list of some of the contents of my over-stocked pantry, and invite recipe suggestions to use some of this stuff (especially the sunflower seeds!) Continue reading