Archive for March, 2009

The Italians have a few sayings about the Month of March.  “Marzo pazzarello: Un giorno brutto, un giorno bello (Crazy March:  One day ugly, one day beautiful,” is a common one.  Another is, “Marzo pazzarello:  esce il sole e prendi l’ombrello (Crazy March: The sun is out and you bring an umbrella).”  Whichever saying you prefer, March is just…well…CRAZY!!!  Italians are generally referring to the weather when they speak of Marzo Pazzarello.  However, lately, it hasn’t just been the weather that has been crazy in my life!  It seems as if the March winds have blown my world into a perpetual cyclone!  Everyday I seem to be spinning in multiple directions, with multiple things to attend to.  These past few weeks, I’ve been completely consumed by my trip to Barcelona,  hosting a birthday luncheon for a good friend,  attending a local festival, recovering from a cold, and starting a new job.    There’s more craziness to come, too, including  attending a going-away party,  teaching English lessons, and preparing for house guests.  I can only hope that both the weather, and my daily life, is a bit calmer in April!

With all of this stuff going on, it’s been really difficult finding the time to create a new blog!  I know that I still owe all of you the stories, photos, and recipes from my trip to Barcelona.  Due to timing constraints, I have to push that post off until later in the week.  It will take me much longer to put everything together for that one.  Instead, however, I’d like to share with you a bit from my visit last week to the nearby town of Salemi.

View of the countryside from the historic center of Salemi

View of the countryside from the historic center of Salemi

Salemi is a lovely town about a 30-minutes east of Marsala.  It has received a lot of global press attention lately.  In an effort to restore the town’s ancient historic center, Salemi’s mayor has offered to sell villas that were mostly destroyed in a 1968 earthquake, for just 1 Euro.   There are, of course, some stipulations and conditions that must be met for restoration, but it’s still a unique investment opportunity.  For more information about this program, click here.

One of the villas destroyed by an earthquake in Salemi

One of the villas destroyed by an earthquake in Salemi

The reason that I decided to visit Salemi had nothing to do with the 1 Euro villas.  Instead, I was there for Le Cene di San Giuseppe (The Feasts of Saint Joseph).  Each year, on March 19th, Italians celebrate St. Joseph’s Day, which is also their Father’s day.  Joseph, the husband of Mary, and earthly father of Jesus, represents the ideal Christian husband and father.  In addition to being the patron saint of families, Joseph is also the patron saint of many other things, including carpenters and tradesmen, and pastry chefs.

Here in Sicily, St. Joseph is revered for saving the  country from famine in the Middle Ages.  According to legend, Sicily had suffered a severe drought, so the people prayed to St. Joseph to send rain for their crops.  They promised to prepare a huge feast in his honor if their prayers were answered.  The rains came, and thus the feasts were prepared and placed underneath alters as an offering to St. Joseph.  This custom is still practiced, and is especially evident in the town of Salemi.

Each year, the people of Salemi create elaborate alters made of bread to honor St. Joseph.  Dough is shaped into many intricate, and symbollic shapes, such as bunches of grapes (symbollizing the eurcharist), ladders and hammers (symbollic of Joseph’s life as a carpenter), fruits and vegetables (symbols of the abundant harvest that saved Sicily from famine), and many more.  The shapes are blessed by the priest and pieced together on branches to form the alters.  Then, gifts such as wine and food, as well as sprouting beans and even goldfish, are laid on or beneath it.

One of the many bread alters

One of the many bread alters


Close-up of some of the symbollic bread shapes

Love as I have loved you.  ~John 15:12~

Love as I have loved you. ~John 15:12~

In addition to the alters, there is the traditional Feast of St. Joseph.  This takes place inside La Chiesa di San Giuseppe, which also has the largest, and most elaborate, of the bread alters.  For the feast, many dishes of food are prepared by townspeople for the feast (think of it as a giant potluck).  There must be a minmum of 19 meatless dishes, but no more than 101, and a plate of spaghetti topped with olive oil, bread crumbs, parsley, cinnamon, and sugar must always be included .  Three children (1 girl and 2 boys) are asked to sit at a dinner table.  These children are symbollic of the Holy Family of Mary, Jesus, and Joseph.  The priest blesses a dish of food and then serves the “Holy Family.”  They take a bite, and then offer the rest of the food to everyone else in attendance.  This takes place one dish at a time, so the feast seems to be neverending.

The bread alter inside Chiesa di San Giuseppe.  This is only the top half of the alter, as you can tell by where people's heads are in the picture.  I just couldn't get a good shot of the whole thing because of the crowd.

The bread alter inside Chiesa di San Giuseppe. This is only the top half of the alter, as you can tell by where people's heads are in the picture. I just couldn't get a good shot of the whole thing because of the crowd.

The "Holy Family" being served at La Cena di San Giuseppe

The "Holy Family" being served at La Cena di San Giuseppe

Local women serving up spaghetti with olive oil, cinnamon, sugar, parsley, and breadcrumbs.  This was given to the "Holy Family", as well as everyone in attendance.

Local women serving up spaghetti with olive oil, cinnamon, sugar, parsley, and breadcrumbs. This was given to the "Holy Family", as well as everyone in attendance.

There are many traditional pastries that are served in honor of La Festa di San Giuseppe.  Two of the most popular are zeppole (sugar-coated doughnut holes), and sfinci.  Sfinci di San Giuseppe are made from the same dough that is used to make cream puffs (bigne’).  The dough is fried or baked, and then filled with pastry cream, whipped cream, or sweetened ricotta.  Alternately, they can also be eaten unfilled, and simply drizzled with warmed honey.  While I didn’t see either of these pastries in Salemi (just cannoli, pignolatta, and cassatelle), they were available in the pastry shops here in Marsala.  Here is a recipe for Sfinci di San Giuseppe, which comes from Victoria Granoff’s cookbook, Sweet Sicily. The book also contains recipes for the other pastries I mentioned, plus many more.  I have to admit that I have not tried this recipe.  I’m trying to avoid having any sweets in the house for ahwile.  If they’re here, I’ll eat them all!  If you do decide to make this recipe, though, please let me know how it turns out.  In addition, if you have better recipes for either of these treats, please send them along to me.

Sfinci di San Giuseppe

8 Tbsp. unsalted butter or margarine, cut into ½ inch cubes

¾ cup water

1 Tbsp. sugar

Pinch of salt

1 c. unbleached all-purpose flour

4 eggs

Vegetable Oil for frying

1 recipe crema pasticciera (recipe follows), or ½ cup warmed orange blossom honey.

In a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan, bring the butter or margarine, water, sugar, and salt to a boil, stirring with a wooden spoon until all the butter is melted. Remove from the heat and add the flour all at once, stirring with gusto until the dough forms a ball that pulls away from the sides of the pan. It will be sticky. Allow it to cool, stirring every now and then to release steam, for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat 2 inches of oil in a heavy saucepan to 325 degrees on a deep-fry or candy thermometer.

Beat the eggs into the dough one at a time, making sure that each one is well incorporated before adding the next. The dough should be loose, but not runny.

To fry the sfinci, dip a tablespoon first in the hot oil (the oil will prevent the dough from sticking to the spoon), then scoop out a spoonful of dough and drop it into the oil You can fry a few at a time, but don’t crowd the pan. After about 1 ½ minutes, the dough will begin to brown and puff up. Turn it over, and an amazing thing will happen. The sfinci will pop open and puff up to about twice their size. This may happen slowly or all at once – each one is different. Continue to fry, turning the sfinci once or twice, until evening browned. When they are done, drain them on paper towels.

If you are going to fill the sfinci, allow them to cool completely, then split them open and fill them with a ricotta filling (like in cannoli), pastry cream, or whipped cream, using a large spoon or pastry bag. To serve the sfinci with honey, keep the fried sfinci warm on a platter in a 250 degree oven until they are all cooked, then drizzle them with honey and serve immediately.

Makes about 2 dozen.


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Tomorrow, I will be traveling with my husband to Barcelona for a little vacation.  Neither of us has visited Spain before, so we’re both really excited!  Jay is looking forward to shooting photos of Gaudi’s creative examples of Modernisme architecture, while I am anticipating the exploration of Barcelona’s culinary scene.  I’ve only recently begun to investigate Spanish gastronomic traditions.  Until now, my knowledge of Spain’s culinary delicacies was pretty limited.  Paella, Sangria, and a few basic Tapas were the extent of my Spanish recipe repertoire.  While those are all wonderful things, I know that there’s so much more to Spanish cuisine!  I can’t wait to find out first hand!

I’ll be sure to post stories, photos, and (hopefully) recipes after we return from our trip early next week.  In the meantime, here is a video of famous Spanish chef, Jose Andres, preparing one of my new favorite Spanish recipes.   I make it quite frequently because it’s simple and full of flavor.  It’s great for breakfast, lunch, dinner, midnight snack…you get the picture :-).  I love to eat it with some crusty bread or homemade flour tortillas (even though they’re Mexican, and not Spanish), and a cold beer at any meal other than breakfast.  The video is pretty self-explanatory, but if you’d like the actual written recipe, let me know, and I can send it to you.  In Jose’s cookbook, Tapas: A Taste of Spain in America, there is also a similar recipe which also includes potatoes.  I can’t wait to try that one!

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Meet Pippo (short for Giuseppe, and pronounced ‘Pee-poh’).   He and his produce-filled van can be found seven days a week, rain or shine, all day long near Motta S. Anastasia, in the province of Catania.  My husband and I visit the area a few times a month, and often stop to make purchases from Pippo while we’re there.  Most of the produce that he sells comes from his own fields, orchards, and groves, with the rest coming from those of his friends.

While we were visiting with Pippo this time, some other Americans who live in the area had also stopped to make purchases.  They didn’t speak much Italian, so I was translating for them.  Pippo was informing us about practically everything that he was selling – blood oranges, pears, apples, sun-dried tomatoes, olives, wine, cauliflower, and more.  It was when he picked up the largest lemon that I had ever seen, however, that he got really excited.  “Super Limone!” he exclaimed, and then proceeded to cut open the gigantic fruit.  The inside consisted of very little pulp for the size of the lemon.  It was mostly white pith.  Seeing the looks on our faces, Pippo explained that these were cedro (cider) limoni, otherwise known as citron, and are for eating, not juicing.  They are often used for preserves and candied fruit.  He said that Sicilians like to peel them, thinly slice them (pith and all), sprinkle them with a little sea salt, drizzle them with some extra-virgin olive oil, and eat them as a salad.  Pippo then let all of us sample a slice.  It was the sweetest lemon that I had ever tasted!  It almost tasted like lemon drop candy!  So, I bought one in order to try his salad suggestion, as well as a couple sacks full of regular lemons, and, of course, more blood oranges (I told you before that I loved them!). 

Pippo with a "Super Limone" or Cedro
Pippo with a “Super Limone” or Cedro


The salad of the cedro limone was absolutely delicious!  In addition to the salt, I also sprinkled just a touch of sugar on the lemon slices to bring out their sweetness even more.  I couldn’t help thinking how refreshing it would be to eat it chilled on a hot, summer day.  Sadly, these lovely delicacies only exist during the summer months.  I need to enjoy them while they last!

The inside of a cedro limone.
The inside of a cedro limone.

As for the rest of my purchases, my husband was very excited to see the sacks of normal lemons.  He knew exactly what I was going to make with them.  LIMONCELLO!!!

My most recent batch of homemade Limoncello
My most recent batch of homemade Limoncello

Limoncello is a lemon liquor that originates from the Amalfi Coast in Southern Italy.  Sipping chilled Limoncello as a digestivo (digestive) after dinner is very common throughout Italy.  On several occasions, my husband and I have enjoyed complimentary glasses of Limoncello offered to us in restaurants at the end of our meal.  I have also used it to flavor cheesecake, ice cream, sorbet, and even a few sauces.  It’s especially yummy drizzled over vanilla ice cream (think of a lemon dreamsicle).  I’ve seen other Americans treat it as they would a shot of whiskey.  However, this is not…I repeat…IS NOT how this liquor is supposed to be enjoyed.  It is to be sipped and savored, not gulped down in one swallow.  Limoncello is now widely available for purchase in the United States and elsewhere.  However, it is just as easy to make from scratch.

Sicilian Limoncello is more intense in every way than Limoncello made it other parts of Italy.  Its color is more vibrant, it’s sweeter on the palate, and it has a more pronounced lemon flavor..  My recipe for Limoncello comes from Aurelio Ferrari, a Sicilian man who I met while studying at Babilona Language School in Taormina last year.  Students at the school have the option to pay for Sicilian cooking lessons taught by Aurelio, of which I took full advantage, of course.  Aurelio’s recipe calls for twice the amount of sugar than other recipes I’ve tried, but Jay and I like it best.  In our opinion, it has the perfect balance of sweetness, acidity, and alcohol. 

Homemade Limoncello will keep for months in the freezer.  Because of the high alcohol content, it will not freeze.  If you do make it, though, be sure to use alcool pure (pure alcohol – Everclear in the U.S.).  I’ve tried making it with vodka instead, but didn’t really like the results.  The alcohol and simple syrup separated after a few days in the freezer, and the syrup froze.  It is also very important to use fresh, organic lemons.  Non-organic lemons are coated in a waxy substance to make them shiny and preserve them.  This substance will greatly affect the flavor of the finished product.   You will not be able to  enjoy the Limoncello on the same day that you make it.  It takes a little over 2 weeks for the alcohol to draw all of the flavor from the lemon zests.  Trust me, though, it’s worth the wait!


15 fresh, organic lemons (you will only use the zest for this recipe.  Reserve the pulp and juice to make something else, like lemonade)

1 Liter Pure Alcohol (Everclear)

1 Liter Water

1 Kg (2 pounds, 3 oz) Granulated Sugar

Using a vegetable peeler, remove  the yellow zest from the lemons, leaving as much of the bitter, white pith behind as possible.  Evenly divide the alcohol into two quart-sized Mason jars, or other large, tight-sealing, glass container.  Place half of the lemon zest into each jar.  Seal tightly, and place in a cool, dark place for 15 days.

Lemon zest and alcohol waiting to be turned into Limoncello
Lemon zest and alcohol waiting to be turned into Limoncello

After the 15 days have passed, line a colander with cheesecloth, and strain the alcohol into a large container.  Set aside.  Place the remaining lemon zest into a 4-quart stock pot, and add the water and sugar.  Heat the liquid over medium-high heat, until just about boiling, stirring frequently to help the sugar dissolve comletely.  Remove from the heat, and allow to cool completely.  Once cooled, remove the lemon zest, and combine with the reserved alcohol.  Pour into glass bottles fitted with stoppers, and store in the freezer.  Limoncello is best served ice-cold in small cordial glasses.

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Our “Open That Bottle Night” didn’t quite go according to how I had planned it.  Originally, I had wanted to pair the perfect meal to go along with the bottle that Jay and I had chosen to open.  I had already gone out and purchased all of the necessary ingredients to make Bistecca Fiorentina (grilled, thick Porterhouse steak), roasted potatoes, a salad of fresh arugula and parmigiano, and molten chocolate souffles.  Jay and I were really excited about sharing a perfect, romantic evening over great food, and amazing wine!  However, as so often happens in life, other things came between me and my plan.

Earlier in the day, we attended a party to celebrate the 1st birthday of our friends’ son. We were originally told that just cake, ice cream, and coffee would be served.  Upon arriving, however, we quickly discovered this was not the case.  There was a table completely filled with food (including some yummy Thai and Philippino dishes), not to mention 3 different cakes!  We didn’t want to be rude, and sampled a little bit of just about everything.  We were especially excited about all of the yummy international dishes.  Needless to say, by the time we left the party, the thought of a big dinner was far from our minds.

Even though our initial plan was obviously no longer going to happen, we didn’t want to just cancel our “Open That Bottle Night.”  We still really wanted to drink the special bottle of wine that we had chosen.  So, we opted for Plan B.  On the way home, we stopped at the supermarket and picked up some cheese, salami, and bread.  Instead of dinner, we enjoyed our wine with a few simple appetizers and each other’s company.  While the wine would have been amazing with the orginal meal that I had planned, it was equally as wonderful with just snacks and good conversation.  It was just another reminder for me that things don’t have to be “perfect,” to be perfect.

I know what you’re wondering…”Which wine did you drink?!!!”  Without further ado, our selection was…..


2004  Lucente – Luce della Vite, Toscana, Italia – 50% Merlot, 35% Sangiovese, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon

We chose this wine for several reasons.  First, Jay and I have wonderful memories of meeting the winemaker, Lamberto Frescobaldi, this past November.  He sat at our table at a wine dinner that we attended, and even signed several bottles of wine from his collection for us.  He and his family also own the famous Marchesi de Frescobaldi, which has been producing wine for over 700 years!   Second, we simply LOVE Tuscan wines!  Who am I kidding…there aren’t many wines that we don’t love!  However, both Jay and I have a soft spot for for red wines from the region of Toscana.  Chianti Classico, Brunello di Montalcino, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano…we love them all!  Third, Lucente is a wine that is available for purchase in the United States.  I wanted to share a wine with all of you wonderful readers that you could also easily try for yourselves without having to make a trip to Italy (although, I think that you should do that, as well).   Finally, we have a second bottle of Luncente that we can continue to hold onto for another couple of years and see how it changes.

Jay and I with Lamberto Frescobaldi

Lamberto Frescobaldi, Me, and Jay

The origin of Lucente has an interesting story.  In 1995, the Frescobaldi family joined forces with Robert Mondavi to make “world-class Italian wines.”  These two wine-making giants jointly purchased land, each family with a 50% stake in the company.  Their first wine, Luce, was released in 1997, followed by Lucente in 1998.   However, in 2004, the giant American wine corporation, Constellation, took over control of Mondavi.  Lamberto Frescobaldi did not want to be part of such a large corporation, so he purchased Mondavi’s share of the Luce company.    He is now completely in control of viticulture and oenology for both Luce wines, as well as Marchesi de Frescobaldi.

So, what did the rest of you drink for “Open That Bottle Night?”  I want to hear about what you drank, as well as the stories from your evening.  So, leave a comment and let me know! 🙂

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