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cookbook reviews with kristina: italian + extra recipe!

by Grace Bonney

This week’s books go along with the great recipe from Emma and Sara for an Eggplant Torta over on the In the Kitchen With column. As soon as I saw the images of the recipe, I thought “Italian”. There are a lot of Italian books out there. Some “authentic”, some “inspired by” which in the end aren’t any more “Italian” than what my grandmother from Alabama used to make for us. So I have chosen an assortment of books this week that fall into the “Italian etc.” category. If you’re wondering, personally, I think the best Italian cookbooks on the market are produced by Slow Food Editori (the publishing arm of Slow Food Italy). They cover most of the Italian regions (one per region, with a few exceptions) and there are a few monothematic ones: Fish, Vegetables, Desserts, Soups, and Recipes from the Osterie featured throughout the regional books. Accompanying the recipes are brief descriptions, in many cases, of the origin and transformations of ingredients, socio-cultural notes, regional variations, or the history of the recipe. In short, the books present a snapshot of food and its development in Italy (unfortunately there are no photos). If you happen through Italy, stop in any Feltrinelli bookstore and pick up one or two or more. Even if you don’t speak Italian, you can fumble through them just fine! People who love food always find a way to explore new and great dishes.

In celebration of the autumn season, we have included a bonus recipe today for Chocolate Hazelnut Cake (torta di gianduia) at the end of this post, an Italian dessert probably from the Piedmont region where amazing hazelnuts are grown, and gianduia was ‘invented’. If you have a favorite Italian recipe book, please share yours below! –Kristina


CLICK HERE for the cake recipe and kristina’s cookbook reviews after the jump!

Easy Tasty Italian: Add some magic to your everyday food by Laura Santtini (Quadrille Books) I’m all for easy tasty Italian food, the title of Santtini’s first book. I admit though, that while the food in it is at times tasty, it’s not so easy or Italian. Or not consistently anyway. It is a high energy Italian inspired book of recipes with “formulae” on how to transform basic recipes (Section 2) into a handful of other varieties, for example in the Basic Fresh Tomato sauce chapter, she offers alternatives which include almond and chilli, rocket and prawn, ricotta with black olive tapenade. Santtini also shows how to take a basic technique and develop other recipes based on that technique (Section 1). For example, the chapter on chopping and changing provides instructions on preparing ‘gremolata’ type dishes based on the chopping technique necessary for the preparation for a soffritto which is the finely chopped saute of vegetables– most frequently celery, carrot, and onion. All the same, the chapter called “The Top 10 classic pasta sauces of all times” is great, as is the section on Risotto, vegetable dishes, etc. Santtini’s quirky personality peppers the narrative in the book, which to some could be off putting. yet it remains oddly attractive and interesting to read. The book’s layout and styling also capture this odd mix of Italian-inspired, modern, British, quirky juxtaposition. For the curious who enjoy experimenting, and who aren’t intimidated by recipes which require a bit of effort (and money) to find ingredients for such as edible gold and silver, rose, hibiscus, or lavender flowers that you might only use once.

Stir: Mixing it up in the Italian tradition by Barbara Lynch (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) I was attracted to this book because of the promise of Italian cooking through a different lens. In her own words, Lunch’s style in this book is Italian inspired, and with the exception of the pasta dishes, perhaps the only notion of “Italian” comes from teh care and choice of ingredients and the technique in some places, which the author has learned and/or perfected in Italy. I like the voice in which the book is written- a caring gentle tone. I also like Lynch’s story of how she turned her undistinguished childhood into a cooking success, going from clerical worker to restaurateur. Many of the recipes in this book, like prune-stuffed gnocchi with foie gras sauce or crisped duck confit with kumquat marmalade, take some time and dedication, while others, like orecchiette with cauliflower, anchovies, and pistachios, or spicy tomato soup with crispy grilled cheese are quick to put together. This is a book for those who love spending extra effort for fantastic food that will be noticed.. It’s also a book which will encourage you to think more in the kitchen, as you will inevitably make variations to the recipes, such as healthier substitutes to the ubiquitous stick of butter which seems to be in many of the recipes!

Valvona & Crolla: A Year at an Italian Table by Mary Contini (Ebury Press). Valvona & Crolla is a shop in Edinburgh, I learned. I think if the recipes in the book are truly representative of what’s on offer there, it must be divine. This book has the charm of an Italy which only exists in small towns. It is, for the most part, a book of very traditional recipes from all over Italy– but don’t confuse traditional with outmoded. Traditional in this case means unadulterated, simple, seasonal dishes typical of the towns in which they are prepared. The food evokes a sense of family and togetherness and immediately inspires ideas of a great Sunday lunch with loved ones during which you all share great antipasti, primi, secondi, contorni. True to Italian cuisine, the desserts in the book aren’t as special as the rest of the food– but that’s ok, because who has room after a full meal in which you’ve inevitably eaten seconds? (An exception: The chocolate hazelnut cake!) On these pages there’s nothing pretentious, nothing fancy, nothing with a million ingredients and a super long name. Just pure good food.

Takashi’s Noodles by Takashi Yagihashi with Harris Salat (Ten Speed Press). Takashi? That sounds Japanese, you say? He is. I confess. Whenever I think of “Italian” food, I think of pasta. But of course we know that what Italians eat (spaghetti, for example) is not Italian in origin, but was brought to Italy from Asia. I thought it only fitting to include in this round up a book which includes several types of noodles, Japanese, Asian and Italian. I love Japanese food, so I couldn’t pass up a book which shows you how to make Soba, but also goes through the different broths to accompany ramen, somen, udon, and soba. If you have easy access to a Japanese or Korean grocery, you should be abl eto find all the ingredients with ease. Otherwise, you will have to adapt the ingredients to your own palate and what you can find. Most of the recipes use dried noodles, so unless you really want to make your own soba, you won’t feel as though you’re missing out on the experience if you choose dried. Wonderful recipes like Curry Udon or Spicy Oil with Chilled Ramen, or Italo-Japanese combination of Fresh Egg Pasta with Pork Loin, Chinese Eggplant, Baby Bok Choy, and Spicy Miso Sauce show the diversity of Japanese cuisine. This is a book for those days you feel like eating pasta in a hot flavorful broth.

From the Valvona & Crolla cookbook:

Chocolate Hazelnut Cake

200g (7 oz, or 1 3/4 stick) unsalted butter

125g (2/3 cup) caster sugar

3 large eggs, beaten

1 tbsp grated orange zest

1 tbsp orange flower water

2 tbsp cognac

165g (1 1/3 cups) plain flour, sifted with 1 tsp baking powder and a pinch of salt

165g (2 1/4 cups) ground hazelnuts

4 tbsp flaked chocolate (minimum 70% cocoa solids)

1 tbsp milk

cocoa powder for dusting

Preheat oven to 180 c / 350 F/ Gas mark 4. Line and grease a 30 cm spring-form cake tin.

Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, orange zest, flower water and cognac. Mix in the flour a spoonful at a time to stop the eggs curdling.

Fold in the hazelnuts and chocolate flakes, then add the milk.

Pour the mixture into the prepared tin. Place a roasting tin in the oven and half-fill it with boiling water. Carefully sit the cake tin in the water and bake for 45-50 minutes, until a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean.

Cool in the tin for 15 minutes or so, then turn out onto a wire rack. Dust with cocoa powder before serving with a blob of cream flavored with orange flower water and orange zest.

(Note from Kristina: You may find it necessary to take greater precaution than the recipe instructions provide when putting this cake in the oven. I usually wrap my tins (on the outside only) in several layers of foil to prevent foil from getting into the spring form pan. Some of you pros may have other better suggestions! I also place the cake into an empty pan and fill it with water from my tea kettle, instead of trying to handle a roasting tin full of boiling water.)

Reprinted with Permission of Ebury Press

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  • Kristina-
    I’m curious about a solution for the steaming/baking technique as well. Perhaps elevating the springform pan above the water level is ok?

    (foil getting into the pan –> water getting into the pan)

  • Hi Juice–

    Yes, thanks for catching my typo! That’s what I meant…water getting into the pan.

    No, you can’t elevate it because the purpose of the water isn’t to steam but to cook it “a bagno maria” as the Italians call it (bain marie in French, I think?!). So, as with cheesecakes, I line the base of the tin with something that sticks out, then I fold that up a bit on the sides. Then I take a large piece of foil and fold it all the way up so that I can fold it a tiny bit on the inside of the spring form.

    Then I fill the pan with pie/cake filling. Then place the pan in the roasting pan, and then use a kettle to fill the pan half way up the sides (generally the amount of whatever is inside).

    That works for me– no water gets in the pan, but water does get in the foil!

    But there must be a better/proper way!! I learned this technique from Marcel Desaulniers Trellis Cookbook. Or something.

  • I use Lidia Bastianich’s recipe from the Epicurious site and have made it twice painlessly to great reviews if anyone wants to compare and contrast. Yum, yum, yum.

  • I am stumbling over my words today. I place the roasting pan with the filled springform in the oven, and then fill with hot water from the kettle. Make sure your oven rack is steady and safe and isn’t going to fall out or anything!!

  • At the risk of sounding very DIY or McGiver-ish, I duct tape the outside of the springform pan creating an insulating seam between the base and the wall. I then lay fairly long piece of tin foil (short side facing me) on my counter top, place the pan in the middle and start pulling the foil up and around tightly. I take a second long piece of foil and lay it on the counter top (short side again facing me) and place the pan in the middle again, but giving it a 180 degree turn so when I pull and tuck that second time, the shorter parts not covered well the first time are now also fully covered.
    Hope that helps.

  • I’m having trouble with the link to the cake recipe. I’m using the latest version of Firefox and am getting a pop-up message that it can’t open the link because it doesn’t know what a “ttp” is. Could you fix the link?

    • denise

      sorry about that- it’s fixed. just an fyi- you can always click the “read more” link below my “click here” touts to view the rest of the post :)


  • To prevent water from entering into the springform pan, I wrap plastic wrap tightly around the bottom of the pan creating a seal. I might even use two sheets of foil. It should be wrapped in the same way as when you make a parchment paper papillote to cook in, overlaying the folds.

    I have also cooked in regular cake pans instead of springform pans. Then, just make sure to spray the pan and to place a circle of parchment on the bottom. After cooking, wait till the cake/cheesecake is completely cooled, place it in the freezer for a bit to get it very solid, run a knife around the edge and flip it over.

  • OK. I am happy to know that my procedure of covering the base then wrapping with foil wasn’t just out of the blue!!! I made this cake with regular pans anyway (2 six inch pans) because I don’t own a 12″ spring form!!!

  • Maybe this isn’t really useful as a “cookbook”, but I think you’d like “L’appareil”; it’s a French cookbook featuring local chefs from Montreal, along with illustrations of recipes made by up-and-coming illustrators in the form of a comic book (or a graphic novel). Unfortunately, the recipes are sometimes a little complicated (I bet that’s because they’re really good chefs) but the book itself is truly beautiful – you can just leaf through it and admire the work of very talented young designers on every page. Anyway, if you can find it, I think you’d really enjoy it!

  • I use silicon paper cake tin liners as I hate the sound of foil against metal. From big on line store that sells plastic stuff. Also sells those ridiculous banana holders??

  • My brother explained that his last trip to the grocery store was eye-opening. He read the labels on everything and discovered how entwined wheat is to so many products. He couldn’t even leave the grocery store with a box of cereal.