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.

You Make the Life You Want to Live?

I walked into this kitchen to cook some Lebanese food.  I’m really interested in practicing Middle Eastern cooking and I have great supplies available here in Tunis to do it.  The pot of chickpeas is bubbling on the stove, but everything else I touch wants to go Tuscan instead, as if by enchantment.  I bought a nice, small beef loin at the market today and my mental taste buds chanted: rosemary, lavender, sage in response.  I bought baby bell peppers and again my mind wanted a cracked wheat stuffing or pilaf with the roasted vegetables.  Oh, and now I just got the message that we also want roasted balsamic onions on the side so I’d better get those going, too.

I don’t consider myself to be experienced at Tuscan cuisine.  I did go to Florence in September for a weekend conference, which sounds like code for I went to Florence and didn’t really go to a conference, but indeed, I went to the conference for long hours each day, escaping for only a few hours one night to see ‘David’, eat a pizza, and buy some staples at a grocery store before flying home the next day.  So what do I know of Tuscan cooking?  It’s from the buffet table at our conference hotel (cringe), but I did notice this:  There were multiple dishes and they were each based on a central piece of meat, vegetable, or grain.  You could look at the platter and say, this is the roasted beef platter and the next one you could say, this is the roasted tomatoes platter.  That might sound really simplistic and a little boring except that when I sat down and started tasting each of those preparations, I realized each one was of a perfect specimen of ingredient and then treated in the most whole manner possible, yet with nuanced seasoning or finishing.  Each bit tasted unique and incited audible “ummms” as I ate.  So that’s what I think I’m up to with my Tuscan cooking:  whole foods wrapped or braised in other whole herbs and seasonings with, hopefully, something unique and finessed coming through each one.

I’m in a Tuscan state of mind to begin with because Allan and I finally got our heads into planning a Spring Break escape in three weeks.  We haven’t done it sooner because we have been conflicted.  Here is the conflict:  Our sons are music majors in the US and they will both be in a production of Don Giovanni the weekend before our Spring Break.  This is Gabe’s third production in the opera department and he is the co-lead, Leporello.  Anton will be playing his double bass in the orchestra pit.  Gabe, in particular, has been working on this part for nine months, translating and learning the words, learning the music, then the blocking, and now the finishing touches to the performance.  He carries a score that is about 1 ¼ inches thick and a recording of his entire part with him wherever he goes and he rehearses, and rehearses, and rehearses.  Will we be there?  These are words that have been very hard for me to acknowledge, but we won’t and because of copyright and profit-making issues, there will be no live-streaming and if past performances hold true, no recording that we will ever see.

Why is getting there such a big deal?  For one, it is expensive.  The two of us can’t go to the US for even a short visit without dropping thousands of dollars.  With two sons in college, loan free, and investments not having performed at peak levels the past 10 years, we need to save some money during this 10 years.  I know, this is an exceptional situation.  It sounds like being just the weekend before our Spring Break would be a good thing, that it’s so close that we can just roll it into the break, but that is the other part of the problem, and maybe the greater issue.  Many employees at our school would love to extend the Spring Break for a variety of valid reasons and Allan is the director of the school.  He cannot set the example of leaving a week early and he can’t give me permission to do it.  I’ve thought of taking days without pay, but that approach exacerbates problem number one and is still bad for problem number 2.

My friend, Richard, says simply, “We make the life we want to live.”  That cuts me to the heart, although he means it all in kindness and I know he has had his own sacrifices to make over his years.  I paraphrase that as, “Make your decision, deal with the consequences, and don’t blame anyone, but yourself.”  It’s just that it seems that almost none of my decisions anymore affect just me.  I have children who I pine for and who need me.  I have aging parents, and siblings, and friends who I cannot get enough time with and who are all affected by choices I make.  I can deal my own consequences, but I can’t be fully in charge of the decision.  I pressed this with Allan, everyday. Bolstering myself with Richard’s haunting words,  I said, “I know we will regret this if we don’t go.”  He agreed and believe me, this is in no way easy for him, either, but his answer couldn’t waver.  I could just say I’m going, but we don’t live like that.  We haven’t ever done that to each other in the almost 29 years we’ve been married and I feel I would be breaking a trust agreement we have which is we don’t do things we can’t both support.

So this is what is horrible about this expat life.  It was so wonderful to sail off with our boys when they were young and so were the other people in our lives, but the sacrifice doubled when they separated from us and it grows exponentially each year.  Now this is the work and life Allan and I know and are invested in and it takes us away from so many people and places we love.

What a weird economy of choice that we are planning a walking trip in Tuscany as an economical alternative to going home to see our sons.  I can’t expect you to understand.  I know I will regret it, but that appears to be what we are doing.