Tuesday, 14 April 2009

these memories of figs and summer

I have this memory: me, italy, summer; heat, food, gelato; loneliness, writing, more food.

It was two weeks, I was a freshly 15, and when I came back, everyone's question was: what was your favorite thing about Italy? The gelato, I said, over and over. The gelato and the ravioli. Oh, and the proscuitto! and the pizza of course...

I think they were hoping for me to say something about the Sistine Chapel (which I admired as an appetizer to my afternoon ice cream) or the Pantheon (I think it was a dark chocolate and coconut cone that evening), but I could never really get as excited about the buildings and paintings and fountains as I could about the sheer deliciousness of everything that I ate. The watermelon from the road stands, the blackberries that hung heavily from everyone's backyard, the fat and fluffy gnocchi, the vendors selling toasted nuts and strings of sausages, the cones of shaved ice doused in espresso and sweetened cream - there was even a night when, after walking around in the evening heat for hours, the sun was finally down and we sat and celebrated with warm croissants filled with gelato (apricot and mandarin for me).

And although the gelato is still the highlight in my mind, and the high standard to which I hold all iced concoctions, it is the lunches that linger as something special.

I stayed just outside of Rome with the family of my aunt's college roommate. Two daughters, just under my age, the mother, Paula, the father, Valter, and the nonno, who sat most of the day quietly watching badly dubbed american television shows in the sweltering heat.

I had never really been away from home before, I spoke only enough italian to ask about the weather and say I was from California, and I was terrified.

But oh, there was the food.

Of course, we had pasta almost every night. Spinach and ricotta delicately tucked into ravioli. Pasta arrabiata flecked with chilis and fresh parmesan, pasta à la carbonara, pasta with a sauce of breaded fish fillets, pasta with baby artichokes, pasta with five cheeses...

But the lunches. Every day at home had pretty much the same routine. Paula, the girls, and I would drive to a nearby village in the mornings to take a few photos and admire the tiny winding streets. They had names like Fornillo, or Trevignano, or Anguillara. Maybe we would wander for ten minutes or maybe for an hour, but we would always end up at the bakery, followed closely by the meat shop. In the bakery, while I drooled over the pastries, Paula would have long ovals of pizza bianca wrapped up: puffy, foccacia-like bread, adorned only with salt and a brushing of olive oil. At the meat shop, we would be handed a packet of freshly shaved prosciutto slices, thin as lace and wafting a deep, meaty scent through the stiff white paper they were wrapped in.

By this time, I would be starving. I've always been a hungry person, despite the fact that I arrived in Rome quite skinny. After two weeks, I gained ten pounds; Paula would look at me approvingly as say "So much better! You were much too skinny in the beginning!" So after a morning's anticipation, and the torture of knowing someone else was eating those magical looking pastries I had seen in the bakery, we would arrive back at the house.

Across the long wooden table the food would be laid. The pizza bianca, the prosciutto, a platter of fresh, fat, green figs, and a bowl of cool, fluffy ricotta.

First of all, it must be said that each of these ingredients was delicious on its own. The pizza bianca was salty with just the right balance of crisp outer crust and soft chewy center. The proscuitto was always impossibly thin, and tore into little shreds of savory goodness that melted on my tongue like candy for grownups. And the figs - oh my god the figs. I love figs, and I loved these figs. Off a neighbour's tree, bursting with syrupy ripeness, they were delectable. If left on my own with a whole bowl, I could have easily polished them off. Finally, the ricotta. This was something new for me, since I had only ever had ricotta out of a plastic tub, smeared on lasagna noodles and then baked to oblivion. This was entirely different. Creamy and fluffy, light with a touch of sweetness, the ricotta perplexed me. I kept trying to compare it to whipped cream, or butter, or even cream cheese. It wasn't like any of these things. Entirely special in its freshness, it somehow felt clean and even pure - like something a milkmaid would have eaten two hundred years ago, sitting atop an overturned wooden bucket and staring out at wheaten fields, sighing with contented delight.

Anyway...we would set the table, and sit down for a moment to admire it all. Nonno would say something in Italian, and I would stare at the figs, feeling my fingers twitch and my mouth salivate. Finally, someone would break off a piece of pizza bianca, and it would begin. I hesitate to use the word sandwich, because they were really nothing like that. What is was was this: the salty bread, a smear of sweet ricotto, a few shreds of salty prosciutto, and then a bright green fig, split in half so the insides spilled across the whole assemblage. It was messy, it was sweet and salty, it was phenomenal.

Every afternoon, I would stuff myself with every possible combination: a half a fig filled with ricotta; pizza bianca and prosciutto; proscuitto wrapped figs, riccota and pizza bianca. The ingredients never changed, but every bite was a surprise, and I never wanted those lunches to end. I'd forget about the oppressive heat, or the fact that everyone I knew and loved was on the other side of the planet - I would eat and be happy.

The downside of having this kind of memory is that nothing can ever replicate it. I still eat figs and love them, but they aren't quite the same; the proscuitto always seems to be a bit dry and stringy, when I'm not on the outskirts of Rome, and the bread, well, I havne't even attempted to match that bread yet.

And then we come to the ricotta. Having harbored these memories bordering on eight years now, ricotta is just beginning to re-enter my life. It was slow at first, and I was wary, let me tell you. But we are getting closer, ricotta and I. I've managed to find, at some of the smaller markets, a ricotta that resembles the one of my memory in its silkyness and creaminess, and I've been slowly and shyly creeping up to it, trying it with fruit, or on my staple whole-grain toast in the morning.

Then, in honor of the lemon, I decided to bake with it. I thought I'd start simple: eggs, lemons, sugar, flour, and of course, ricotta. Beaten together and poured into a beautiful baking dish I found stashed in the back of the cupboard, and Meyer lemon pudding cake makes an entrance.

Of course, this is something entirely different that those afternoon meals. But at the same time, I feel like it somehow fits in. It's an offhanded recipe - almost rustic, if you can call a pudding that. There's nothing prentious about it, and it's served family style. I can just see it on that wooden table, waiting patiently for the eaters to finish off the meat and bread so they can move on to this almost custard-like finale, spooning it onto their plates and eating it with the last few figs, or perhaps a few bright raspberries. Like ricotta itself, this pudding is humble, but it sticks in your mind and hangs around there, setting itself up as something a little more permanent than a summer afternoon in Italy.

Meyer Lemon Pudding Cake
inspired by Italy and The Traveler's Lunchbox

4 tbsp butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
zest of one or two Meyer lemons
3 eggs, room temperature, separated
1/3 cup Meyer lemon juice
1/3 cup flour
8 oz fresh ricotta
1/4 tsp salt

1) Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and butter a baking dish, I used a ten inch casserole dish (It should be around 1 qt). You should also have another dish, large enough to accomodate the baking dish you intend to cook the pudding in.

2) Beat the butter until little tails form, then add the sugar and the zest and beat until fluffy. One at a time, add the egg yolks, beating well after each addition. With the beaters on low, add half the lemon juice, half the flour, and half the ricotta. Beat till combined, then repeat with rest of juice, flour, and ricotta.

3) Put a kettle on to boil. Wash your beaters. Beat egg whites till foamy, add salt, then beat until stiff peaks form. Gently fold in about 1/4 of the egg whites into the lemon mixture. Continue adding big scoops of beaten egg white and folding in until completely combined. Pour into prepared dish. Put dish inside second larger dish.

4) Carefully, without splashing, pour boiling water around small dish until it comes up about one inch along the sides. Carefully (!) slide into the oven.

5) Bake 45 to 55 minutes, until center is set and top is golden brown. Mine took about 50 minutes. Let cool ten minutes in water bath. Serve in dish with a big spoon for scooping.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing this recipe. I made it last week and it was delicious!