Coconut Biscuits

Before I leave my  Tuscan state of mind, I want to capture a recipe.  This is simple and that’s partly why I love it.  Last night, Nadia, the owner of the farm, finally let me join her in the kitchen.  She offers dinner to the guests about every other night and this was to be an off night, but she was planning to make a little dinner for the wine-bottling crew and offered to feed us as well.   We made a basic tomato sauce from two of the 500 jars of tomatoes they put away each summer.  Tomato puree, a clove or two of whole garlic, and a sprinkling of salt were all we used.

While that sauce was simmering and the penne was boiling, Nadia whipped up some coconut biscuits.  This is a recipe she knows by heart.  She began by propping a hand mixer in a bowl in the sink to whip one egg.  The rest of the recipe she measured, using her metric scale.  To the egg, she added 85 g. (6 Tbsp.) of sugar and beat until light yellow.  Then, she mixed in 85 grams (6 Tbsp.) of unsweetened, shredded coconut and finally, 20 grams (1 1/2 Tbsp.) of flour.  She simply scooped this out of the bowl in 1 tablespoon scoops, rolled them in her hand and placed them on a baking sheet.  This recipe makes 12-14 biscuits.  She put them in a 140 degree C. (300 F) oven and while they were baking, melted 100 g. (3.5 oz) of dark chocolate in a double boiler.  When the cookies were slightly brown (check after 10 minutes) she removed them from the oven and cooled them by putting them on the terrace.  Finally, she half-dipped each cookie in the chocolate and cooled again.

This is a recipe I want to pull out for one of those meals when we have company or family with us.  Maybe we’ve had a busy day and we are tired, but I still want to prepare a great dinner with a sweet treat at the end.  This was the way last night was.  It was a big day for Nadia and Renato, getting the bottling in-process.  Renato was poetic at dinner about the roller coaster ride a wine maker’s emotions go through in the production of a vintage.  We called this bottle ‘the baby’ and shared the first bottled glasses with the vintner.  It was an honor to be in that moment.

This is a PS for me.  I want to remember to make a cracker-thin crusted pizza with blue cheese and radicchio when I can and I want to keep that idea, somewhere.

Bottling Time

Have you ever considered how the picturesque, little vineyards you notice along country roads get their small harvest wines into bottles?  As with many elements of the wine-maker’s process, I hadn’t.  I guess I thought they hand-bottled it in a garden shed,  using a funnel and a manual corking machine.  Maybe that’s how it used to happen, but these days, when the wine is sold globally and the liability for selling a product with any kind of contamination is so great, the wine must be preserved perfectly.  For vineyards that produce less that 1,000,000 bottles per year, at least in Italy, a custom bottling company comes to the farm and sets up a mobile factory on-site.

Today, it is bottling time at the Marcciano estate for the 2011 vintage.  We waited and waited for ‘the truck’ to show up and when it did, it looked like the carnival was coming to town.  A massive 18-wheeled rig somehow squeezed down the twisting, dirt road to the farm and began to set up what looked like the Tom Thumb Doughnut stand.  Tacky county fair comparisons ended there, though, as the team of experienced engineers set up their mobile factory and began the routine of calibrating the machines to bottle this production.  They provide their own energy, through generators, as the voltage requirements would overwhelm what is available at most ancient estates.

The farmer must have everything on hand which means pallets of bottles, boxes, labels, and corks printed with their logo.

It all has to be set up and ready to go because once the system gets into full operation, it bottles something like 20-30 per minute and they have to be ready to box and store them on the other end.

It wasn’t long before bottles turned into cases which were stacked on pallets to be shipped.  The first 2,000 bottles are already sold to an American importer and Renato, the owner, has so much riding on this.  This bottling represents the end of an idea he said.  Once he successfully captures it, he then has to sell it, distribute it, and then wait for the public’s response to his creation.  All of this while those vines are bursting with the potential for next year’s growth.

Italian Breakfast

The Italian style of eating sweets for breakfast is a little challenging for me.  I need to have protein for breakfast:  eggs, cheese, nuts,  something of that nature.  If I start my day with a lot of fluffy carbs, I’m starving and possibly in tears in about an hour.

Every morning we join the other guests in the cozy kitchen at our farm.  Nadia, the owner, and Maggie, an assistant, are often folding the line-dried laundry from the day before.  It creates such a homey atmosphere.

In the kitchen is an assortment of freshly baked goods. There will be a warm cake and one or two varieties of croissants along with yogurt, fresh fruit and cereal.  I zero in on yogurt and fresh fruit and sample just a little of the baked goods.  The morning we had Buckwheat Cake, however, I felt like I was eating something supportive.  This is a typical Northern Italian recipe called Torta Di Grano Saraceno.  Even though it contains a heavier flour and ground almonds, the cake has a light crumb.  Maggie cut her cake in half and filled it with raspberry preserves.

It is perfect with a cappuccino, but in case you don’t know this, it is considered gross to have milk in your coffee past noon in Italy so cappuccinos and lattes are only for morning.

Buckwheat Cake

Serves 16

Ingredients

1 cup whole almonds, blanched or natural ( 6oz/175g)
1 ½ cups buckwheat flour ( 200g)
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon cinnamon
1 large lemon, zested
2 teaspoons baking powder
¾ cup unsalted butter, at room temperature ( 6oz/175g)
1 ½ cups sugar, divided ( 300g)
¾ cup milk ( 180ml)
4 eggs, at room temperature, separated

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350F/175°C Spread the almonds on a baking sheet and toast until golden and fragrant, about 10-12 minutes. Cool completely.
  2. Grease a 9-inch/23cm springform pan and set aside. In a food processor or clean coffee grinder, grind the almonds as finely as possible with 1/4 cup (50g) of the sugar. In a medium bowl, stir together the ground almonds, buckwheat flour, salt, cinnamon, lemon zest and baking powder.
  3. In another bowl, beat the butter and 1 cup (200g) of the sugar until fluffy. Add the egg yolks one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the dry mixture alternately with the milk until everything is well combined.
  4. In a mixing bowl, whip the egg whites with the remaining 1/4 cup (50g) sugar until they form stiff, glossy peaks. Stir one-quarter of the whites into the cake batter to lighten it, then gently fold in the rest. Scrape the batter into the greased pan, smoothing the top.
  5. Bake the cake in the preheated oven for 45-55 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, covering the top loosely with foil if it begins to darken too quickly. Cool the cake for ten minutes on a rack, then carefully remove the outer ring and cool completely. Cut the cake in half, horizontally, and spread with preferred jam.  Dust with powdered sugar before serving..

Spring Green

Many, many years ago, I used to live in a climate of four distinct seasons.  In that world, March was a month of lush restraint.  The bare-rooted essence of trees and shrubs was still evident, their knotted branches straining with the thrust of growth waiting just below their stems and bark.  The first bulbs pushed through the cold, snow-melt damp soil beginning the pageant that would last until the following October.

I have been away from so many of these plants for so many years that I can’t always remember how vibrantly they appear in the pre-equinox landscape.  For a couple of springs, I got to go home to my house on Lummi Island.  I have only seen it twice in spring in the 10 years I have owned it.  Would you believe it if I told you that about an acre of the pasture is covered with naturalized, yellow daffodils in late March and early April?  My neighbor also raises sheep and the newly birthed lambs are strong enough on their legs, by this time,  that they can spring straight up in the air when they frolic in the ocean-side air.  Today reminded me of those country images.

We had a GPS scavenger hunt.  Our hosts gave us some town names, intentionally sequenced to keep us off the interstate highway.  In our tiny car, not the Fiat pictured,  we motored up and over knoll after knoll.  The land is used is such a different way to the farmland I am familiar with.  The estate is built on the top of the hill and the surrounding hillside and valleys are completely planned and planted.  Some properties look completely denuded, still.  Some are beginning to show a shadow of green and some are already vibrantly green.

Nothing grows without permission on these intensively controlled farms.  Grape vines, olives trees, fruit trees are all pruned, and clipped, and trained to expend their energy only on the productive side of their natures and not a whip on self-indulgent growth.

These photos are all selected to evoke the essence of green, and almost growth, and sheep in the form of pecorino: sheep cheese.

Sunday in Siena

It’s Spring Vacation.  Yesterday morning, Allan and I caught the 6:00 AM flight from Tunis to Rome, which takes exactly one hour, rented a car and drove to Tuscany.  We are staying for a week at the Agritourismo Marciano, a farm stay just outside the city walls of Siena.  So far, it is exactly what we wanted:  a real farm, rustic but tasteful, organic, clean.  It’s all of that.

They have a particular thing about the laundry here which is all fresh and bright from air drying.  Well-done laundry is important to me and gives me a clear message about the deep levels of intentionality this establishment has.    The cat particularly liked it, too. I felt like him last night tucked into my clean, crisp sheets.

This was the kitchen this morning when we came in to share breakfast at the long farm table with the other guests.  It’s cozy, here.

Due to limited internet access, my husband wasn’t able to check his email this morning so he read a guidebook instead.  When we got into the car to go into Siena for the day, he had everything planned, including a great little surprise place for lunch.  I find that incredibly romantic.

We so passionately want to find the great little places to have a bite to eat and do not want to be herded along tourist trails from one oversized meal to another.  He read about Antica Pizzicheria al Palazzo della Chigiana which is probably locally known as Antonio’s.  It is a tiny meat and cheese shop that is legendary with the locals.  A line starts to form near noon and is soon out the door.  Allan read that you could ask them to assemble a platter to eat on the spot and if you bought a bottle of wine, they would lend you glasses.

They aren’t actually a restaurant, but they can prop you up with your delicatessan treasures on a wine cask in a corner and there you can spend an indulgent 1/2 hour groaning with each bite and licking your fingers. Antonio was really touchy about taking pictures.  He had several posted signs forbidding it and tragically,  you never saw a more atmospheric place in your life; it’s begging to have its picture taken.  I sort of begged him a little and he grudgingly allowed me to inconspicuously take a few so I kept it really brief.  Here are just some house-canned sauces and artichokes.  I love the hand-drawn labels.

Here is what was on that plate:  five varieties of pecorino, which is the Italian name for cheese made from sheep’s milk and then cured meats that ranged from wild boar to farm-raised, air-dried pork.  Notice the condiments that brought it together and that bread had chunks of salty meat and chunks of cheese.

This meal was a great find and it set a tone for the kind of food we want to source out the rest of the week.  Take out your Siena Brown color-crayon and color along with us.