March 27, 2011

Field Notes

So far, my travels on behalf of the paperback edition of Every Day in Tuscany have been fun.  If you’re anywhere near, do visit the “George Inness in Italy” exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I spoke there as part of the activity around the exhibit and was dazzled by the museum in general, as well as the exhibit in particular.  Inness was a nineteenth-century visionary who loved the Italian landscape and dreamed over it so much that he even painted evocative Italian landscapes when he was not there. What beauty greets the eye when looking at his greens and vistas and his lonely single figures that the landscape converges on. The exhibit is small and exquisite.

Ed and I drove to Atlanta, spending a night in Greenville, S.C. en route. That’s a leafy city with walks along the river, a burgeoning food scene, and  public art.  One venerable building from the past has been left as an evocative shell and Mamie, our lovely waiter in The Lazy Goat, told us she takes her poetry students there to read because of the good acoustics.


Greenville seems like one of those blooming towns where you’d like to live and become a big booster of the place.  At our late dinner at Soby’s, we felt right at home.  All over the South, outstanding restaurants are cropping up!  Hurrah!

In Atlanta, I read for the Georgia Center for the Book. Long may they reign. They do great things to promote books across the state. I spoke in a big Baptist church in Decatur and had fleeting thoughts of becoming a preacher.  Bill Starr and Joe Davich put together a wonderful event. My cousin David cooked dinner for us and my sister afterwards and we had a fine reunion. We left early on Tuesday for Asheville—home of Thomas Wolfe, as all good southerners know.  Malaprop’s is a terrific bookstore with a friendly staff. Laurey’s Catering did the event. I met lots of warm people. After the event, we walked around the corner to The Table and fortunately they were still serving their delicious bob-white quail.  We stayed at the Indigo Hotel.  I requested it because I stayed at the Indigo in Athens, GA last year and loved the fresh, contemporary décor.  It’s a small chain and worth seeking out.  Not luxe, luxe but so crisp and thoughtful. In the morning, before heading North, we visited Laurey’s simpatico café for muffins and coffee. Her manager had just learned that the bone transplant on her small son had worked! Her joy lit the place with supernatural energy and propelled us home.

We were happy to find our three cherry trees in white splendor.


Also happy to meet a calm weekend full of recipe testing. The cookbook is almost done! Here’s our homey torta della nonna–grandmother’s tart, a short crust, a lemony custard filling, and toasted pine nuts:


and our creamy torta di ricotta, which looks plain, like the big full moon we’ve been witnessing:


Next time, I’ll dress it up with toasted almond slivers or currants plumped in vin santo. Or, a drizzle of chocolate. The recipe came to me from Silvia Regi, who owns the country luxury inn Il Falconiere in Cortona. The small ones on the side are for us.  We’re having fun giving away most of what we bake. It’s the only sane way to go! I’m adding the recipes at the end of the post.

During this break, our friends Chiara and Giampaolo Venica were here on a wine tour.  (I posted photos—mostly of shoes!—from their June wedding.) Giampaolo’s family owns Venica & Venica, sublime wines from Friuli. We took them to a great southern command-central of great food: Revolution in Durham, NC.  Always a little tension taking Italians to dinner in the U.S. but not to worry—they loved the food and the ambiance.  Durham is just astonishing.  In the five years we’ve lived here, good restaurants have popped up like porcini a week after rain.

For my birthday, we celebrated at Panciuto in Hillsborough, another stellar place that sources almost every bite from within twenty miles.  On his menu, Aaron Vandermark lists all his farm sources and ends with rosemary, four blocks, from his own yard. My grandson was thrilled over dining out on a school night. We started at 6:30, which Ed regards as late lunch. Aaron had procured two rabbits for us, which we’ll experiment with.  Two Tuscan classics–one braised in balsamic and tomatoes, one deboned and stuffed.

On Monday, I travel to Randolph College in Lynchburg, VA.  I went to school there when it was Randolph-Macon Woman’s College.  All the girls were smart and took themselves seriously.  I was shocked because I thought college was for making friends, reading poetry, and going to parties. It was an overdue awakening for me and my first writing class there confirmed that what I wanted to do in this life was write books.  How foolish and wise we sometimes are at eighteen.

It was fun to meet several readers of this blog at the events.  Thanks for coming.  Kathleen, thanks for the pizzelles!  Emoke, grazie for the books, especially yours. Rick, I treasure Le Tavolette Votive Italiane and have been poring over it!  Mille grazie. Hope to see some of you at the Tattered Cover LoDo in Denver on 30 March or in Kansas City on 4 April, when Rainy Day Books will host two events.  My last stop is National Geographic in Washington DC on 12 April.  Click on Tour for details.

Here are the two recipes. Use the Pasta Frolla crust for either.

Pasta Frolla

Frolla means “friable.” It’s a short crust; you can press it into the dish with your fingers, if you like. Any leftover dough can be baked as cookies with a couple of pine nuts on each, or with a dab of jam on top.

Makes 1 double 10-inch pie crust

2¼ cups all-purpose flour, sifted, plus additional for preparation

2/3 cup sugar

Pinch of salt

12 tablespoons (1½ sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut in bits

2 eggs

Zest of 1 lemon

Combine the flour, sugar, and salt in a large bowl or mound them on a floured work surface. Make a well, with the butter in the center. With your hands or 2 forks, blend in the butter until it looks like breadcrumbs. Add the eggs and zest. Knead, forming a soft dough. You also can use a food processor: Pulse together the butter, sugar, and salt. Add the eggs and lemon zest, and then add the flour a half cup at a time, pulsing, just to blend, until the dough forms.

Roll the dough into a ball, pat it with flour, and wrap it with a damp dishtowel. If you’re making the torta della nonna, divide the dough into two balls, one slightly larger.  Chill for at least an hour. The dough will be sticky.

Flour the rolling pin and a cool surface. Roll out a circle to fit your pie plate. Flip the pastry over the rolling pin and into the pie plate. Or simply press the pastry into the pan with your fingers.

Torta della Nonna

1 recipe pasta frolla (short pastry)


2 1/2 cups milk

4 yolks, beaten

2/3 cup sugar

Zest and juice of 1 lemon

1/3 cup all-purpose flour

1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch

1 teaspoon vanilla extract


1 teaspoon polenta

1/3 cup pine nuts, lightly toasted

2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar

Prepare the pasty.  While it chills, make the filling.

In a medium saucepan, beat the milk, yolks, sugar and zest.  On medium heat, stir for 5 minutes or until slightly thickened.  Turn the heat to medium-low and slowly sift in the flour and cornstarch, whisking all along. When it becomes a very thick and creamy custard, stir in the lemon juice and vanilla.  Remove from the heat and allow to cool while you finish the pastry.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Divide the chilled dough in half. On a floured surface, roll out one half to fit a 10-inch tart pan. Sprinkle half the polenta on the bottom for a little crunchy taste. Pour in the filling then roll out the other circle of dough to cover.  Crimp it around the overlapping edges.  Press the pine nuts into the dough and sprinkle on the rest of the polenta.  Bake for 30 minutes, or until the crust and nuts are bronzed.  Let the torta rest for 5 minutes before sifting the confectioners’ sugar over the top.

Torta di Ricotta

1 recipe pasta frolla.  Add to it add 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon.


2 cups milk

Zest of 1 lemon or orange

4 eggs

2/3 cup sugar

Pinch of salt

1 tablespoon flour

1 pound (1 3/4 cups) fresh ricotta

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In the bottom of a double boiler, heat the water to a boil and then turn down to a good simmer.  Put the milk in the top half of the double boiler, along with the zest, and heat thoroughly but don’t boil. Set aside.  In a large bowl, combine three of the eggs with the sugar and whisk until a thick ribbon forms.  Incorporate the salt and the tablespoon of flour.  Slowly whisk the egg mixture into the milk.  Cook the egg and milk mixture over the simmering water for 10 minutes, stirring until it is thicker than heavy cream but not as thick as sour cream.  Remove from the heat and let it cool.

Roll out the dough to fit a 12-inch tart pan.  Prick the bottom and sides with a fork.  Bake for 10 minutes then remove from the oven.  Whip the ricotta with a fork to smooth and lighten it.  Fold it into the filling.  Mix well and then stir in the remaining egg and the vanilla.  Beat vigorously  Pour the filling into the partially-baked shell and, if you like, top with toasted almonds, or currants or dried cherries plumped in wine or vin santo. Bake for 30 minutes, or until the filling is firmly set.