Easter, Passover and Leonardo’s The Last Supper

 

When we saw Leonardo’s The Last Supper in Milan earlier this year, Jim made an observation about some of the imagery in the painting.  He wondered why the loaves of bread on the table appeared to be leavened bread.  The historical Last Supper is traditionally believed to have been a Passover Seder at which only unleavened bread should have been eaten.  The Last Supper took place on a Thursday, followed by Jesus’ trial and the Crucifixion on Friday and the Resurrection on Sunday, which was Easter Sunday.  This is the reason that Passover and Easter overlap in present times.

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No one seemed to know why Leonardo depicted leavened bread.  Did he not know that the Last Supper was a Seder?  He was incredibly curious and learned, so that seems hard to believe.  Did the Church suppress this fact?  The command to eat unleavened bread is in the Bible.

I asked my friend Mary who is an artist and knows a lot about art history why Leonardo would have ignored this fact.  She has, moreover, just finished reading Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson and here is what she has to say:

Isaacson’s book depressed me because it seemed like da Vinci never completed very much—he was brilliant but never really devoted to art or painting.  Finally I realized that I wasn’t appreciating who he really was.

Da Vinci wasn’t the kind of artist who devoted his life to art because his ideas couldn’t be limited by painting.  He was an incredibly accomplished painter by his early ‘20’s, but his ideas were already far exceeding what was possible in painting.

His genius and his life-long passion lay in his attempt to unlock the mysteries of nature – to penetrate the laws that govern physical, natural and artistic realms, and discover the similarities and correspondences between them.

His paintings are incredible examples of his technical skill, but their silence and aloofness don’t give us a glimpse into his personality and emotions.

We have a better understanding of da Vinci through his notebooks which show his unmatched interest in so many areas – what might be called his unquenchable thirst for discovery and understanding.

 

I felt as though I had gained a deeper understanding of Leonardo, but still I asked, “Why the leavened bread?”  Mary’s answer was that because da Vinci wasn’t captivated by painting and also was not religious, that he really didn’t concern himself with the historical accuracy of the picture.

I remembered that Leonardo had not finished The Last Supper, which had been commissioned by Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, to embellish the family mausoleum.  Leonardo worked on the painting sporadically while devoting time to his other interests.  During that time Sforza had started a war with the French, and both he and Leonardo fled Milan after the Duke had been taken prisoner.

True, Mary concurred and added:

Da Vinci was true to himself – he was an artist-scientist-engineer and he remained so all his life!  We all need that kind of courage.  He was never and cannot be pigeon-holed.

 

I am grateful to my friend for her insight into this fascinating Renaissance man.  Wishing all my friends a Happy Easter and/or Passover,

 

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Milan — and Roman Ruins

Our winter vacation began in Milan on a pre-ski tour to see The Last Supper.  I had always thought of Milan as a Renaissance city, despite its reputation as a world-class business and fashion center, famous for its shopping gallery.  Which indeed it is.

 

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Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, built in 1861

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But I love to delve into the past and Milan’s Renaissance history appealed to me.  When Jim invited me to join him on his pre-ski trip specifically to view this painting, I happily accepted.  The Last Supper was commissioned of Leonardo da Vinci by the Duke of Milan Ludovico Sforza, also known as il Moro, around 1495-96.  Leonardo worked on it until 1498.

Ludovico Sforza had caused much turmoil in Italy during the period in which The Last Supper was being painted.  In 1494, he allied himself with the French king Charles VIII, who had a claim to the throne of Naples.  This city had, about fifty years earlier, passed from French to Spanish rule.  Moreover, the Spanish king had established an alliance with the Pope so that Naples would be inherited by his son.  To protect Milan against this Spanish-Papal alliance, Sforza invited Charles III into Italy so that he could make his way to Naples to re-claim it for France.  This opened the way for French aggression in Italy. Ultimately, in 1498, Charles VIII’s successor claimed the throne of Milan.  In 1499 both Sforza and Leonardo fled Milan; in 1500 Sforza was captured by the French, living the rest of his life as a prisoner in France, where he died in 1508.  Leonardo also spent his last years in France, at Amboise, one of the Chateaux of the Loire Valley, under the patronage of Catherine de Medici.  And his greatest painting remains in Milan.

Our visit to The Last Supper was scheduled for late in the afternoon.  That gave us a large part of the day to explore the city and learn something of its history.   Our visit began, normally enough, with a visit to the cathedral.

A visit to Italy is always a trip back in time, however, and Milan was no exception.  Besides, we are always on the lookout for Roman ruins.  Were there any in Milan, a city noted for its Renaissance culture and contemporary design?  Anyone who has studied Latin in high school has heard of Cisalpine Gaul, as the region in which Milan is located was known to Julius Caesar.  The city itself had been conquered in 222 BC and from then on was under Roman administration.  And, yes, there were traces of that time, though not many.

Very impressive nevertheless were the Columns of San Lorenzo.  They are believed to have been part of a pagan temple or a bath house of the second century AD.  Two hundred years later, they were moved to the parvis or the area in front of the Basilica of San Lorenzo

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By the fourth century AD, Milan had been Christianized.  In fact, it was from Milan in 313 AD that the Emperor Constantine issued the edict that allowed tolerance for all the various religions of the Roman Empire.  From that point on Christianity could flourish openly.

Emblematic of this history, are the vestiges of this 5th-6th century church which we saw on the way to the Columns.  According to the signpost in front, it was built over “the remains of a lavish Roman residence.”

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And also this niche that we found on our way to Maria delle Grazie. 

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It was now the end of the day and we were making our way to see The Last Supper.  As we passed from ancient to modern times, we came upon a very interesting public building, the Stock Exchange.

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It is a wonderful example of “fascist architecture.”  It is imposing and stark.  Very little of its structure is given to decoration, but what is, exemplifies Roman power and virtue.   This building calls attention to the authority of the State.  In front is an award-winning sculpture from 2000.  Its visual statement says it all.

It was the end of the day and growing dark when we finally arrived at our purpose – viewing The Last Supper.  Ludovico Sforza had purchased the monastery Santa Maria delle Grazie around 1494.  The mural was originally intended as decoration for the family mausoleum.  It was only later that the room containing the mural became the rectory for the monks, the subject of the painting being appropriate for them to contemplate while dining.

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The Last Supper was a Passover Seder at which Jesus announced that one of the Apostles would betray him.  Our guide pointed out the various expressions of suspicion and horror on their faces, each man wondering who it would be and trying to assert that he himself would not be the one.  Judas is depicted as holding a purse, representing the thirty pieces of silver and reaching for Jesus’ bread.

Jim had a question:  Why was the bread not unleavened instead of the round loaves depicted since it was a Passover Seder?  We have not been able to find the answer.

It was dark when we made our way to the metro and back to our hotel and a delicious dinner.  A great ending to a great day.  Tomorrow I would be on to Paris, where I had decided I would spend part of my time looking at still more Roman ruins.

 

 

West Virginia Italian

August was a busy month.  It is usually a month to stay home, go to the beach and tend the garden, but this year we traveled.  No, we did not go to Italy – we got as far as England where there are Roman ruins, but before that we went to Morgantown, West Virginia.  It is a place of some architectural gems.

 

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Early 20th Century building whos façade has become modernized with neon.

 

I am from Morgantown and lived there the first nineteen years of my life.  There was an Italian community there, although except for the older Italians who had emigrated from various parts of Italy in the early 20th century (My father came from the Cilento region.), it seems to me that we were assimilated; we considered ourselves West Virginians.

 

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The old Metropolitan Theater, formerly a movie house, now a performance space

 

First of all, I would like to dispel any misconceptions of West Virginia.  It is not a southern state.  In fact – and I asked my old friends and the volunteer in the Morgantown History Museum who agree – we think that people who consider West Virginia to be a part of the south don’t know their American history.  West Virginia seceded from Virginia in 1863 because it chose to remain a part of the Union, and considers itself a northern state.  Nor is the culture particularly southern.  West Virginia never really had a plantation economy; its industries were forestry and coal mining.  These attracted protestants from Ireland in the 18th century, and later people from Wales, Eastern Europe, and Italy.  This seemed to be the ethnic make-up of Morgantown when I lived there – all were proud of their heritage, but still West Virginian.

 

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Detail of early 20th century building on High Street

 

Morgantown is home of West Virginia University and once was a rather wealthy town. It boasted several glass factories — Jacqueline Kennedy chose glassware for the White House from one.  There was Morgan Shirt Factory which produced Ralph Lauren, Ellen Tracy and Van Heusen apparel.  There was also Sterling Faucet, which, as the name indicates, made faucets.  I was saddened to learn that these industries are gone now, just memories documented in the History of Morgantown Museum.

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Old stone building, formerly a bank, lather a clothing store, now housing souvenir shops and a radio station

 

I love this building.

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It stands on the corner of High Street and Pleasant Street and, when I was little, housed a pharmacy called Moore and Parriot.  The pharmacy was owned and run by two Italian-American women, Mary Angotti and Anne DiNardo.  They were friends of my mother.  Mary Angotti was the pharmacist.  This was in the 1940’s and ‘50’s.  There have always been enterprising Italian-American women!

And, yes, Italian men worked in the coal mines. I don’t remember much coal mining in and around Morgantown when we were growing up – and I asked my friends who agreed and said that more mining was done in the southern part of the state. Nevertheless, there was some.   Frank Liberatore, a friend of my father, was killed sometime in the 1940’s in a mine collapse.  His widow Maria supplemented her Workmen’s Compensation by taking care of children – me included.

She taught me how to make pizza when I went to visit her one day.

“Come in,” she said.  “I made pizza.”   Her pizza was different from what we knew of in pizza parlors.

“But there’s no tomato sauce or cheese.”  I was confused.

“Oh, this is the pizza.”  She offered me a disc about six inches in diameter, with browned onion and salt.  “You put whatever you want on it.”

It was delicious!  When I make pizza, I always think of her.  Indeed, I used this recipe when we got back to New York – to make pepperoni rolls.

Pepperoni rolls are a West Virginia-Italian invention.  I had had them when I was growing up, usually from Aunt Jenny’s bakery on Walnut Street, and sometimes from Pike’s on Pleasant Street.  I was a little surprised when I moved to New York that no one here had ever heard of them; then I forgot about them.

Then I found Morgantown Magazine in our hotel room.  “The Pepperoni Roll, from A to Z,” an article written by Mary Wade Burnside explains that this dainty was developed in West Virginia as a lunch that coal miners could take with them down in the pits.  Ms. Burnside also tells us that there is a book written about the pepperoni roll – The West Virginia Pepperoni Roll by Candace Nelson.  And since the book mentions that they could be made from pizza dough, I decided to make some for my family.

I tried to make them as I remembered them with thin slices of meat rolled up in plain bread.  However, the article indicates that the making of pepperoni rolls has become an art with variations and permutations according to one’s preference. You can access Morgantown Magazine and more information about pepperoni rolls at morgantownmag.com.  In the meantime, here is my recipe:

Pepperoni Rolls  

6 oz. thin sliced pepperoni                                                         ½ cup water

1 pack dried yeast                                                                         1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon salt                                                                               1 additional cup water

2 Tablespoons olive oil                                                                 2 cups + flour

Extra flour for kneading dough

 

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The beginnings of pepperoni rolls

 

Put ½ cup warm water into a large mixing bowl.  The water should be about 100ᵒ F.  If it is too hot, it will kill the yeast.

Sprinkle the yeast and sugar on the water.  Cover bowl and let stand for about a half hour, or until yeast begins to bubble.

Add the olive oil and salt to the yeast mixture.  Then begin to add the flour, about 1 cup at a time until you have a smooth dough that forms a ball and does not stick to the surface of the bowl.

Flour your counter or table top and remove the dough from the bowl and begin to knead.  You will have to knead for about 15 minutes, adding flour as necessary.  When little blisters begin to form in the dough, it is ready.

Lightly grease the bottom of the bowl with a little olive oil and put the ball of dough in.  Turn once to make sure both sides of the dough are oiled.  Cover and let stand for about an hour.

When the dough has doubled in bulk, punch it down and let it sit for about 10 minutes.

Flour your work surface and roll the dough into a rectangle.  (You can do this in batches.)  Cut rolled dough into squares of about 6 inches. (or larger if you prefer)

Spread the pepperoni slices on each square and roll like a jelly roll.  Tuck in the ends.  Place the rolls on a greased baking sheet and let them sit for 15-30 minutes – until they have risen but are not too big and airy.

Bake at 350ᵒ F. for about 30 minutes.  They are done when nicely browned and sound hollow when you tap them.

This should make about a dozen larger rolls, or two dozen smaller ones.

 

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Pepperoni rolls ready to eat

 

Not only did I re-discover pepperoni rolls while staying at the Hotel Morgan, we also were served a new version of the classical Manhattan – the Black Manhattan.

What does this have to do with being Italian?  Well, it’s made like a traditional Manhattan, but instead of sweet vermouth, this drink calls for an amaro di Averna, the bitter liqueur from Sicily.

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You can use either rye or bourbon (We used Bulleit rye), amaro di Averna and a dash or two of bitters.

 

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Jim mixing Black Manhattans

 

 

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Black Manhattans ready for a toast

 

 

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Cheers!  Squisito!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Good Friday, Salerno and Pastiera

The kitchen smells scrumptious with wafts of lemon, vanilla, cinnamon and custard.  I have made pastiera, an Easter tradition I have come to of late.  Another taste of Naples that we have made our own.  I didn’t grow up with this luscious dessert, although Jim did.

The first time I ever tasted pastiera was in Salerno.  It was Good Friday and we decided to have an adventure.  We would go from Naples, fifty or so miles south to the Cilento region.  There we would try to find my father’s town, Campora, and visit my cousin Maria who still lived there.  It seemed like a short distance, but getting there was not so simple.

We took the train from Naples to Salerno, a charming port that butts up against mountains.  Salerno is Naples’ equal in richness of history, but its opposite in spirit.  Salerno is a quiet, clean city that scintillates when the sun hits the harbor.  It is at the end (or beginning) of the Amalfi Coast, but is unfortunately overlooked in favor of Sorrento or Positano.

 

So far so good; however, getting from Salerno to Campora, we found we would have to rent a car, since there was scarcely any public transportation.  This was easily done, but before heading to Campora, we decided to see a bit of Salerno.  We didn’t have much time – only a couple highlights, but what we did see was noteworthy.

We wandered around the historic center, straying into courtyards and peering at antique fountains.


 

 

 

 

Thus, we came upon the Medieval Aqueduct.  We read on the historical marker that it was built in the ninth century and was called “Devil’s Bridge” because it was said to have been built in one night with the help of demons.

During the ninth century Salerno was under Lombard rule, but not Naples.  The Lombards were a Germanic tribe that invaded Italy in the seventh century.  Their rule stopped just beyond Salerno, never reaching Naples, which was still nominally part of the Eastern Roman Empire, although really an independent dukedom.  (Yes, the Empire still existed, ruled from Byzantium.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next, we made our way to the Cathedral of St. Matthew, originally built around 1070’s, when all the south of Italy had been conquered by the Normans.  (The Normans conquered England during the same century.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The cathedral was completely re-built after having been destroyed by an earthquake in the seventeenth century, but bell tower dates back to the thirteenth century.  The cathedral is said to house the tomb of the Apostle St. Matthew. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After so much sightseeing and before our long winding drive to Campora, it was time for lunch.  We found a restaurant near the train station (and also close to the car rental office) and there I had my first taste of pastiera that Good Friday in Salerno.

The next Good Friday we were in New York again.  Hunting through my cookbooks, I found a booklet called “Great Recipes” that had come in the mail in 1983, and included a recipe “Neapolitan Wheat Pie (Pastiera Napoletana)”.  I found wheat berries in Little Italy, although I had to ask for “grano” because they didn’t know what wheat berries were.  I felt right at home.

So, I have been making pastiera for Good Friday ever since and would love to share the recipe.  Since I am dairy intolerant, I have included non-dairy substitutions.  The recipe is not difficult, but takes time, so I make a few days before I want to serve it.  The flavor only improves.

Neapolitan Wheat Pie (Pastiera Napoletana

Wheat Berries

1 cup wheat kernels                                        1 cup milk or soy milk

2 tablespoons sugar                                         2 strips of lemon zest

  1. Soak the kernels in water to cover overnight.
  2. The next day, drain the kernels, place in a pan and cover with water. Bring to a boil and simmer for 20 minutes or until wheat is tender.  Remove from heat, let stand at room temperature, covered for about 1 hour.
  3. Next, drain the wheat of any remaining liquid. In a saucepan, combine the wheat with the milk, sugar, and lemon zest.  You can add a pinch of salt, if desired.  Bring to a boil and simmer, uncovered, stirring often, until the liquid is absorbed, about 15 to 20 minutes.  Transfer to a shallow bowl to cool.  Discard the lemon zest.

In the meantime, make the

Pasta Frolla

2 cups all-purpose flour                                               ¼ cup sugar

½ cup lard or coconut oil, chilled                               1 egg yolk

½ cup milk or soy milk

  1. In mixing bowl, combine the flour and sugar. Cut in the lard or chilled coconut oil and work quickly with fingers until mixture resembles coarse meal.

2,         Beat egg yolk and milk together and stir into the flour mixture.  Gather the dough into a ball, wrap in plastic foil and chill at least 20 minutes.  (While the wheat berries and milk are cooling.)

Next step:

Crema Pasticcera

3 egg yolks                                       ½ cup sugar (or less, according to taste)

¼ cup flour                                          1 cup milk or soy milk

2 strips lemon zest                               ½ teaspoon vanilla

  1. In a pan mix the egg yolks and sugar; gradually add the flour and mix well. Slowly add the milk, stirring constantly with a wire whisk until the mixture is liquid and smooth.  Add lemon peel and cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly until mixture thickens.  Let it “puff” once or twice but do not really boil it.  Remove from heat, discard lemon and vanilla and set aside.

Putting it All Together

1 pound ricotta, drained or 1 pound non-dairy cream cheese

6 eggs at room temperature, separated (You can also add the egg white left from the Pasta Frolla.)

2 tablespoons finely chopped orange peel

1 tablespoon finely chopped candied citron

½ teaspoon cinnamon

  1. Butter a 10-inch springform pan. Set aside.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  2. Reserve one-third of the Pasta Frolla and roll out the remaining dough into a circle large enough to cover the bottom and sides of the prepared pan. Let the dough overlap but trim all around evenly.  Chill.
  3. If you are using ricotta, strain it through a sieve. Place ricotta or non-dairy cream cheese in a mixing bowl, stir in the sugar and beat until creamy and smooth.
  4. Add the 6 egg yolks one at a time, then all the remaining ingredients except the egg whites.
  5. Fold in the Crema pasticcera and the wheat berry mixture.
  6. Beat the egg whites until stiff but not dry and fold into the ricotta/non-dairy cream cheese mixture. Spoon into the chilled pastry shell.
  7. Roll out the reserved dough and cut into ½ inch wide strips. Arrange stripps in lattice-fashion on top of pie.  Fold overlapping dough all around pie and seal strips in.
  8. Bake for about 1 hour and 15 minutes. Cover pie loosely with aluminum foil and continue baking 10 to 15 minutes longer.  Remove pie from oven and cool on wire rack.

Note:  To develop its full flavor, this pie should stay overnight in a cool place or be refrigerated.

  1. Cut into wedges and serve at room temperature.

Enjoy!!

 

Lent, Blood Oranges and Sanguinaccio

There are some flavors from our time in Naples that still pervade our lives.  Blood oranges, for one.  We first tasted them the rainy winter we lived in Naples.  All of a sudden they were the only oranges available in the markets.  The skin displayed dark red blotches; inside was darker still, even purple.

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They did not look like the oranges we knew.  And the flavor was different, not as sweet, yet somehow deeper.  A small fruit with a big taste.  In Naples they are known as red oranges – arance rosse.

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But Jim did not like them.  He went on search of a “real orange”.  He would ask all the vendors in Italian, “Ė questa un’arancia arancia?”  “,” they would be the puzzled response.  What he didn’t realize was that the vendors thought he meant, “Is this a real orange?” which indeed it was.

For me, now, blood oranges signal the beginning of Lent.  The red oranges arrive, we were told, in February.  The winter we spent in Naples Ash Wednesday happened to be in February, preceded of course by Carnevale.  Carnevale in Naples is quite a lively affair involving rotten eggs.  The teachers at Centro Italaino where we were studying told us that some people saved eggs from the previous year to toss at passersby.  We spent a week sidestepping the putrid eggs splattered in the streets.

Carnivale, of course, initiated the season of Lent, with its obligations of sacrifice.  Old traditions linger.  We no longer have memories of winter stores running low at this time of year – after the autumn harvests and before the new growth of spring.  Food would have been scarce in times past, however.  Supplies like meat and fat that might spoil would have been consumed during Carnivale.  Yet for us that winter in Naples, Lent brought the new taste of blood oranges and something else delicious besides.

Now something new appeared.  A new dessert in the cafes and pastry shops.

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Inside Cafe Gambrinus

I first tasted it one evening when I arrived home from my Italian lesson.  Jim said he had something for me and presented me with a dish of what looked like chocolate pudding that he had bought.  He told me it was called sanguinaccio.

 

“Do you know what that is?” he asked.

“Something to do with blood?”  I guessed, knowing that the Italian word for blood is sangue.

“It’s chocolate cream and is supposed to be thickened with the blood of a pig.”

I imagined that they must have slaughtered pigs at this time of year to make prosciutto for Easter.  I didn’t really know.  Or perhaps food supplies were running low for animals too and there wouldn’t have been enough to feed them.  In any event, nothing would have been wasted and the blood, which would have had to have been used quickly was made into blood sausage and a remarkable dessert

Nowadays, the pasticcerie no longer use blood, but their confection is delicious nevertheless having been thickened with lots of dark chocolate.

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After some experimentation, I duplicated it (somewhat) for my family back in New York.  I have included this recipe in my book Ciao, Napoli.  And here it is:

 Sanguinaccio

 3 tablespoons corn starch

1/2 cup sugar,

1 1/2 cups whole milk or soy milk,

4 ounces baking chocolate

1/2 cup red wine

2 eggs

Melt chocolate and set aside.

Beat the eggs with red wine and 1/4 cup of sugar in large heat-proof bowl and set aside.

Combine corn starch and 1/4 cup of sugar in a saucepan. Stir with wire whisk to sift together. Gradually add milk and cook until thickened, stirring constantly. Add the chocolate and continue to cook until well blended.  You may add more sugar if you thing the chocolate is too bitter.   Mixture should be very thick but not boiling.

Add the chocolate mixture to the egg mixture, beating constantly until blended. Return to saucepan and cook for 2 minutes, but do not allow it to boil.

Spoon into 6 individual serving dishes and allow it to cool before serving.

Ash Wednesday has just passed and I am continuing my lately assumed tradition of making sanguinaccio on the Sunday before.  This time I used coconut beverage instead of soy milk and the result was denser, needing additional red wine.  Meno male!  Red wine and chocolate make for a luscious combination.  We’re going to enjoy this tonight.

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As for the blood oranges, both Jim and I developed a preference for them.  Then at the end of spring, they disappeared from the markets as suddenly as they came.  We couldn’t find them anywhere.  Not until February, the vendors told us over and over again.  Yesterday in New York I found some in the supermarket and brought home a couple of bags.  So we are enjoying what has become our customary feast on the first Sunday of Lent.

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Ahh, the pleasures of the late-winter table!

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Lentils for the New Year

Since it’s not yet Twelfth Night or Little Christmas, it’s not too late to say, “Happy New Year.  May this year bring good health and prosperity.”

We celebrated New Year’s Eve with friends, Bob and Elaine and Anna and Donato.  Anna noted that this was the 17th anniversary of our friendship – hers and mine.

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Anna and me on New Year’s Eve

I met Anna and Donato for the first time a few minutes into the new millennium – at the start of the year 2000.  I was at a New Year’s party hosted by one of my best friends.  There were five couples and me, a widow.  When Anna and Donato joined us, I became the 13th at table.

Anna brought with her a great pot of lentils and cotechino, a special Italian sausage that is eaten with lentils at the very beginning of the New Year.  Anna explained that it is the custom of her native Rome and it is supposed to bring money in the coming year to those who partake of the dish just after midnight.  New Year’s Eve was traditional a fast day, a day in which Catholics do not eat meat, so lentils with cotechino must wait until just after midnight.

Anna is a good cook and the lentils were delicious.  She promised me that I would become rich in 2000.  She was right – I met Jim on February 13, 2000.  (I now consider 13 to be my lucky number.)  So, I am offering a recipe guaranteed to bring good fortune – New Year’s lentils.  Again, this is not a recipe I learned in Italy, but it’s history is definitely Italian.

This is my own version, to which I will add the cotechino for New Year’s.  If I want a meatless dish, I just omit the sausage.

½ can flat anchovy fillets, including the oil

            2-3 tablespoons olive oil

4 cloves of garlic

1 large onion, diced

2 carrots, diced

2 stalks of celery. diced

2-3 tablespoons chopped parsley

1 teaspoon each allspice, coriander, cumin, marjoram (or more to taste)

1 cup dried lentils, rinsed

4 cups water

1 lb. cotechino  (You can but this at an Italian butcher shop.)

  1. Sauté the garlic, the herbs and spices, and the anchovy fillets in the anchovy oil and olive oil.
  2. When garlic is soft add the vegetables and enough water to keep them from burning.  Sauté the vegetables with the garlic and herbs, stirring frequently, until they are tender.  Add the lentils and about 3 cups of water.
  3. Cover and cook for about an hour, again stirring frequently.  Add all or part of the remaining cup of water as the lentils become thick.  This part is left to the discretion of the cook:  some prefer a more liquid lentil dish than others.  So, use your judgment, according to your taste.
  4. If you’re making this for New Year’s, at this point, you add the cotechino.  (If you don’t want to include meat, just follow the next step.)
  5. Cook uncovered for about another half-hour.  If you feel that the lentils are too hard, cook longer.

Anna says that the tradition is that lentils will bring money in the coming year.  I feel that although I didn’t necessarily have more money, I did receive good fortune.  So, I wish you all good fortune, whatever it means to you.

When we returned from our New Year’s Eve celebration, we all enjoyed a very small bit of the lentils and cotechino that Anna had made.

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Anna, me, Elaine, Bob, Jim and Donato

Happy, healthy and prosperous 2017

Christmas Eve Eel Stew

Merry Christmas!  And if you don’t celebrate Christmas, please accept our wishes for a Happy Chanukah, Good Yule, or even the joyful renewal of the coming year.  My offering is a recipe that is most unusual.  It did not originate in our travels to Naples, although our recent visit sparked Jim’s memory of his mother’s Christmas Eve eel stew.

We have never spent Christmas in Naples.  We come back to New York to celebrate various holidays with our families.  Christmas now begins early in Naples and I was a little surprised.  We visited Salerno on October 31st, a quiet holiday just before All Saints’ Day (November 1st), when people visit cemeteries to leave flowers or other offerings for loved ones who have passed on.  Salerno was quiet, yes.  But the Christmas decorations were up and ready to usher in a holiday that was still about two months away.  The weather was still warm, and in the sunshine along the coast it felt like summer.  The narrow streets farther inland, however, were dark and windy, foretelling the winter.

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Christmas lights in Salerno

There was more heralding of Christmastime in Naples.  Returning to our apartment in Naples, we walked along Via Tribunali.  We came to a street that we had passed many times before – it seemed to be more of an alleyway than a street – but for some reason, unknown to us, we decided to go along Via Trinchera just to see where it led.  It led to the Largo dei SS Apostoli

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Largo SS Apostoli

and a very plain-looking church that we read was built by Constantine upon a former Temple of Mercury.

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When we entered the church, we were dazzled by its baroque chapels.  And in one of those chapels, was a presepio.

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The presepio is a grand Neapolitan tradition.  It starts with the Nativity – the Holy Family, of course, along with the magi, shepherds and angles; but includes the people of Naples.  There are pizza bakers, pastry makers, woodcutters, folks of the village eating in cantinas or drawing water from a well.  Families add to this scene every year.  And it ascends.  Like going up a mountain.  This presepio signaled to us that Christmas is coming and we would soon be going to our other home.

And the idea of Christmas caused us to think of our own upcoming Christmas Eve celebration and reminded Jim of his mother’s eel stew.  He told me the following story:

“Every Christmas eve my Mother, following her family tradition of seven fishes, would prepare a Fish Stew whose main ingredients were eels and fennel (including lots of the feathery tops).  The recipe was her Mother’s and a long standing tradition.

Of course being familiar and disgusted by slimy, wiggly eels that I used to catch in traps on LI Great South Bay, I and my brother gave her lots of grief about eating any.  In the end for traditon s sake we held our noses & had a bite.  That was hard to do.

Fast forward 40  years or so, just after Christmas and also after my father’s funeral, I visited my Mom’s house upstate.  After an early morning ride I arrived around noon and as I entered her kitchen there was a delicious odor coming from a pot on the stove, I asked if I could have a taste.

Her indignant immediate response was NO!!  Not after you & your brother gave me all that grief many years ago.  The she said it was her families Ell Fish Stew from Christmas Eve.

So I begged.  Delicious food is wasted on the young, etc. etc.   She relented and it was truly wonderful.

One of my regrets was not thinking to get the recipe then.  Many years later I polled all the family cooks, it was not to be found.”

Our project for this Christmas Eve became the attempt to duplicate eel stew.  Working from Jim’s memory and checking the internet for ideas and suggestions, we came up with something that approximates his recollection, but is still a work in progress.

First, because we are back in New York, we went to Chinatown to buy live eels.

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Once they were killed and cleaned,

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we set out to cook them as follows:

1 lb eel.

1 tablespoon of olive oil

4 cups fennel, bulb and fronds only (make sure that the tops are light green and fluffy)

1 medium onion

4 cloves of garlic

¼ cup fresh parsley leaves

½ teaspoon of dried oregano

3 tablespoons additional olive oil

1/16 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1 cup white wine

3 cups vegetable broth or water

Salt to taste

Cut eel into one-inch pieces and sauté in 1 tablespoon of olive oil, salting to taste.  Cover pan and set aside.

Using only the tender bulb of the fennel, slice it thinly.  Remove the fluffy leaves from the stalks and add them to the bulbs.

Thinly slice the onion.

Mince the garlic and sauté it in 3 tablespoons of olive oil.  Add the herbs and onion.  Cover the pan and continue cooking over medium heat until the onion slices are transparent and parsley is wilted.  Add the sliced fennel bulb and fronds and the white wine.  Cover and cook over medium heat. This dish is meant to be eaten with a spoon, so make sure there is plenty of broth.

When fennel begins to soften, add the broth.  Cook until the fennel is tender.  Put stew in a serving dish and top with the sautéed eel.

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The stew is not exactly as Jim remembers it, but he says it is close.  We’ll keep trying.  He said there is definitely no tomato as there was in every recipe for eel stew we found on the internet.  His sister recalled having a lot of thinly sliced onions in the stew, and Jim said his mother would use onion and garlic together.  (I have been told that Italians don’t mix these two, but the Italian woman who taught me to make sauce had no objection when I mixed them.)

We enjoyed our Christmas Eve eel stew and will keep trying to improve it.

Have a very joyful holiday!

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Christmas in Northport