Late winter holidays provide the perfect excuse to gorge on sweets, treats and rich temptations for the palate in order to take the edge off a numbing progression of dark, icy days.
Wait! What? This is Florida, America’s Spring Break playground—sun, beaches, sand, Disneyworld, parks—amusement or nature—the ultimate getaway destination for the winter weary!
Sadly, not this year for the over 65 set….
The monotony of COVID-induced isolation forced us to remain holed up at home. We endured feverish hours refreshing vaccine sites or counting the days until the achievement of full immunity after getting our jabs. Late March ushered in the mass breakout of grateful grandparents sporting newly minted silver coiffures and COVID-padded waistlines. We hungrily embraced family and friends and made forays into local shops, medical offices and testing sites, and even the occasional outdoor restaurant or cafe.
Comfort food and desserts got us though the weeks preceding that magical day, and I used every excuse to make something special. Carnival? Cioffe. Valentine’s Day? Chocolate Kiss Mini Cakes. St. Joseph’s Day? Zeppole. St. Patrick’s Day? Irish Soda Bread. Easter Week? Ricotta Almond Cake and Pastiera Napoletana. And Macarons, Macarons, Macarons.
For this edition I will focus on a few favorites from that list.
I have intense memories of light, crunchy, flakey fried bowties generously veiled in confectioners sugar. They go by many names: frappe, cioffe, guanti, chiacchiere. My Neapolitan family referred to them as “eee wand”, which is the sound of the local dialect for “I guanti.” Usually prepared to celebrate Carnivale, (Mardi Gras) they are simply made with flour, eggs, sugar, liquor (wine or rum or marsala) and sometimes a little baking powder to flake them up a little. Then they are rolled out very thin either by hand or with a pasta roller (I used my Kitchen Aid with the pasta attachment), deep fried in batches (one must be careful to change the oil if it gets too dark), drained and generously sprinkled with confectioners sugar. Jerry loved them, but remained disciplined and only ate a few. Over the course of a week I finished the entire box.
A few days later we celebrated Valentine’s Day. Time to pull out the stops. I settled on a wonderful two person dessert that I found on The Cake Blog—mini chocolate kiss cupcakes involving three differently prepared chocolate elements: cupcake, filling and ganache glaze.
For presentation I created a template of Valentine’s phrases and cut them into the familiar shape of the Hershey’s Kiss white paper strips. The cakes were served on aluminum foil to evoke the unwrapped candy along with a strawberry glaze and red tissue paper to adorn the plate. Big. Success.
More holidays intervened, but we gobbled up the associated desserts before I could get decent pictures. Jumping ahead now to pre-Easter and Easter, two wonderful Italian desserts graced our table. We invited old friends to dinner to celebrate our vaccinations and a special belated birthday. While I usually like to make extravagant three layer cakes for important milestones, this time I opted for a simple Italian Almond Ricotta cake which I paired with strawberry macarons. Made with drained ricotta, eggs, sugar, almonds, flour and organic almond flavoring, it was an elegant conclusion to a celebratory meal.
The macarons lent a festive touch to the presentation which came up a little short due to the consistency of the strawberry glaze. Next time I plan to thicken it a bit more so it holds the shape better on the plates.
The final entry in this month’s dessert compilation is the traditional Italian Easter grain pie, or Pastiera Napoletana. In keeping with ancient pagan customs combined with Christian symbolic gestures and respect for the liturgical calendar, Italians bake up an orgy of sweet and savory confections for Easter, often featuring grains, eggs, and pork products to signify the end of the fasting period and the rebirth of spring. Truly, my Italian food group posted mouth-dropping arrays of pies, cookies, cakes and filled breads. Since it was just “two little old people” at our house, I could only justify making one….but it is my favorite.
It is a two to three day process. The first step is making the grain. Traditionally Italians soak and cook wheat berries as the base for this pie. I have never had success with berries, and while many bakers simply buy canned precooked berries, I was determined to find an authentic homemade solution. Then one day after making a nice pearled farro salad I realized I had found Holy Grail. Now on day one I soak and cook farro with milk, sugar and orange peel without any pith, until the farro softens and the liquid is absorbed. I also make the pasta frolla (Italian sweet pie crust) at the same time and set ricotta to drain excess moisture. On day two one simply has to mix the drained ricotta, farro, eggs, cream, candied orange peel, orange and lemon zest and my secret ingredient, turn it into the rolled out pastry, make a lattice and bake. On day 3…you eat it. And days 4 and 5 and 6.
The taste of my childhood…
That brings us to mid April. Two batches of buttercream along with ripening egg whites are waiting in my fridge and freezer. A macaron-themed post is already on deck for next time.
We borrowed this post from Theresa’s website “Welcome to Lockdown Kitchen“. If you enjoyed this post, you’ll find a lot more to love there. — Editor
Theresa D’Aiuto Sokol was a performing artist, teacher and director. Experienced in opera, concert, and chamber music, she lived and worked in Germany and sang a wide range of repertoire on three continents. She was Opera Director at USF where she staged two productions annually for a decade, and directed opera, musicals and theater in regional venues. Theresa holds a B.M. and M.M. in vocal performance from Manhattanville College and USF, and trained privately in NYC with professionals from Juilliard, Curtis and the Metropolitan Opera and in Europe. In her retirement she enjoys languages, baking, blogging, bridge and video editing.