Tag Archives: Bitter Almonds Recollections and Recipes from a Sicilian Girlhood

MARY TAYLOR SIMETI and her new book:SICILIAN SUMMER An adventure in cooking with my grandsons.

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Many of you would be familiar with the writings of Mary Taylor Simeti, one of the greatest authorities on Sicilian food.  You may have a copy of her classic, in-depth, definitive book of the culinary history, traditions and recipes of Sicily called Pomp and Sustenance: Twenty Five Centuries of Sicilian Food. This was published in several editions and the same text was later republished as Sicilian Food: Recipes from Italy’s Abundant Isle.

Or you may have read her other books about Sicily:  On Persephone’s lsland: A Sicilian Journal, Travels with a Medieval Queen or Bitter Almonds: Recollections and Recipes from a Sicilian Girlhood. She has also written other books published in Italian as well as travel and food articles for various American, Italian and British publications including the New York Times and the London Financial Times.

Her new book is called SICILIAN SUMMER: An Adventure in Cooking with My Grandsons.

This time Mary takes us to her farm at Bosco, located some 40 miles west of Palermo in the hills overlooking the Gulf of Castellammare. The farm has been in the Simeti family since 1933. Mary and her husband Tonino inherited it in 1966 and is now a diversified farm of less than forty acres of vineyards, olive groves, fruit and vegetables with organic certification for their Bosco Falconeria wine, olive oil and produce.

SICILIAN SUMMER: An Adventure in Cooking with My Grandsons, is an account and photographs of the food that Mary and her 4 grandsons (aged 13, 10, 7 and 5 years) cooked over 10 intensive, continuous days for the Simeti family – Mary and Tonino Simeti (the nonni), the four grandsons and the four children’s parents. The recipes that Mary and the boys prepare are all described and they use the abundant summer produce they themselves have helped to harvest from the fields: cucumbers, eggplants, tomatoes, almonds, zucchini blossoms and zucchini.

And when you have abundance, you use the same vegetable to produce various dishes – there are numerous ways to eat tomatoes and the zucchini blossom is enjoyed battered, stuffed and cooked in pasta dishes.

But it is so much more than a book of recipes suitable for her grandsons of various ages. Mary captures the pleasure that family brings when the three generations of the Simeti family gather on the farm each summer and she meditates on the role food can play within the family in bonding, consolidating tradition and identity and creating memories of her own childhood and those of her children. In between memories and recollections there is a beguiling mix of a family history and an account of the development of the farm that Mary and Tonino now share with their daughter, her husband and  two grandsons.

Mary’s honesty shines through the book. She questions her skill and ability to conduct these cooking experiences and is concerned about using safe implements for her young cooks. I loved the description of the very special garlic press:

 A little boat of burnished steel, it has holes in its hull through which tiny pieces of garlic rise up as you press it into the peeled cloves rocking back and forth on a cutting board.

And I loved the description of Tonino.  Grandson Matteo when young, would only see his grandfather once a year when he visited with his parents and brother from New York. Matteo was finding it difficult to relate to Tonino as he was unaccustomed and unfamiliar to him. But Mary describes how this all changed when the young Matteo … saw his grandfather drive up to the farmhouse on a tractor, a vision that in his mind would have outshone Apollo driving up in the chariot of the sun. Familiar or not, Tonino had achieved godhood.

Mary reflects on the current plight of the world that her grandsons are growing up in and wonders about the cooking project she has undertaken with them: Am I compiling an album of childhood memories, scenes that will have some relevance to their adult lives, or will this be the record – even for them – of a lost and irretrievable Golden age? 

She hopes that these experiences in her kitchen will make these moments more significant and render their memories more indelible.

The book ends with the preparation of the last meal for Tonino’s 79th birthday celebration.

Scattered as we soon would be, the shared memory of the past ten days, the cooking and the laughing and eating together would link us firmly together. I have never felt closer to my grandchildren, more sure than our sense of family.

Could this be the last summer that the Simeti family spends together?

Sicilian Summer: An Adventure in Cooking with my Grandsons. The publication date is 25 September, but it is already available for pre-ordering on line, either in paperback form or as an ebook (search for them on line). Obviously, if you would rather support your local bookshop and help promote Mary’s writing by doing so, you could ask your favourite bookshop to order it.

Mary Taylor Simeti is one of my heroes – I think that sometimes it takes a newcomer with a passion to observe and describe and rediscover what is Sicily and tease out the history behind the food (not that she is a newcomer any longer, she is part of Sicily, an expatriate who has spent all her adult life dedicated to her new homeland and appreciating its culture).

Marisa Raniolo Wilkins

Product details

  • Format Paperback | 138 pages
  • Dimensions 140 x 216 x 9mm | 231.33g
  • Publication date 25 Sep 2017
  • Publisher SilverWood Books Ltd
  • Publication City/Country Bristol, United Kingdom
  • Language English
  • Illustrations note colour photographs
  • ISBN10 1781326878
  • ISBN13 9781781326879

 

 

SICILIAN CASSATA and MARZIPAN AT EASTER (Food and Culture in Sicily, La Trobe University)

I usually coat my cassata with marzipan and every time I do this people tell me how much they have enjoyed eating the marzipan and how it compliments the flavours of the cassata.

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The last time I made cassata with marzipan was Saturday 23 March at Food And Culture In Sicily: Easter Cookery Workshop offered by La Trobe University and once again the people who attended the session liked the marzipan and said that they had never enjoyed eating it in the past.

The session began with a very interesting lecture on the history of food and feasting in Sicily, Italy and the Mediterranean.  Dr Gillian Shepherd is Lecturer in Ancient Mediterranean Studies and Director of the A.D. Trendall Research Centre for Ancient Mediterranean Studies at La Trobe University. During her lecture she focused on the literary and archaeological evidence for food production and consumption in the ancient world.

The lecture was followed with a food workshop and cooking demonstration that reflected the ways Sicilian cuisine has been influenced by the dominant cultures of the Mediterranean from ancient times to the modern day, which includes Greek, Roman, Arabic, French and Spanish cultures.

The cassata was very appropriate for this session, not just because of its derivation, but also because it was essentially and still is an Easter dessert. In time it has also become popular for Christmas.

Sicily produces large quantities of almonds and almond meal is used extensively for making traditional almond sweets and pastries. Marzipan fruit originate from Sicily and Sicilian pastry cooks are esteemed and employed all over Italy.

Marzipan when made in the traditional method is made by cooking a strong syrup of sugar and water and then adding freshly ground almonds. The mixture is kneaded till smooth (like bread dough) and then shaped.

The modern and easiest way is to make it with almond meal, icing sugar and water. It is still kneaded and rolled with a rolling pin. Unless you can buy fresh almond meal it is best to blanch the almonds and grind them yourself.

Over the years I have been making marzipan and adapting a recipe from Bitter Almonds, Recollections and Recipes from a Sicilian girlhood. Maria Grammatico has a very famous pastry shop in Erice in Sicily and her recipes have been recorded by Mary Taylor Simeti.

This is the original recipe:
2 cups (300 g) whole blanched almonds
2 cups (400 g) granulated sugar *
1/3 cup water
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract (optional)
In a food processor, grind the almonds with about 2 tablespoons of the sugar until very fine, almost powdery.
In a food processor or in an electric mixer, combine the nuts, the rest of the sugar, the water, vanilla, and the almond extract.
Process or mix until the paste is very smooth. Remove to a marble slab or other cold work surface dusted with confectioners’ sugar and knead briefly by hand.
Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate until ready to use. Marzipan will keep almost indefinitely in the refrigerator.

****This is what I do: I use 2 cups of ground almonds and 1 and ½ cups of pure icing sugar combined with ½ cup of caster sugar – this adds the crunchy texture that compliments the ground almonds.

I really like the taste of natural almonds and if I am using fresh almonds I see no necessity to use vanilla or almond extract.

I usually mix the sugars and almond meal with my fingers and add the water slowly. I am cautious with water because if the mixture is too wet I may need to add more almonds and sugar. I knead it as if I am making bread and if it needs more water I add it to make the mixture pliable.

This is not the first time that I have written about Cassata or Easter or Marzipan and there are many other posts about these three topics on this blog.

This post has the recipe for making cassata:

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LEMON MARMALADE TO USE IN SICILIAN PASTRIES. Conserva/ Marmellata di Limone (o di Cedro).

Lately, I have fallen in love with the delicious Sicilian pastries from Dolcetti made by Marianna Di Bartolo.

DOLCETTI, handmade sweet things (223 Victoria St, West Melbourne).

 

Dolcetti means little sweets in Italian (it implies exquisite little morsels) and my frequent visits to this pasticceria has revived my desire for that distinctive, strong citrus taste present in many Sicilian desserts.

Sicilians produce a large range and quantities of citrus. One of the citrus is the cedro (citron). Cedri (plural) look like very large lemons and they have very thick skins. Sicilians use them fresh to make a salad (dressed with salt, extra virgin olive oil), but most of all they are candied (used for making cassata) or made into a sweet conserva (conserve/ jam/marmalade), especially common for flavouring desserts and placing in the centre of almond pastries.
Marianna also sells beautiful preserves in her pasticceria, but I have not seen a lemon one.

These may not be cedri, but the size and amount of pith on these lemons is comparable (each lemon weighed approx. 700g each). I decided to treat the lemons like cedri and make a conserva.

Finding a recipe can be an interesting process. I  do not think that I have ever followed a recipe from start to finish; I always enjoy finding and comparing recipes in the various publications, adding what I know and then modifying it to suit my tastes.

Each of the numerous times I have visited Sicily (and Italy), I have bought cookery books – not only by the greats of Sicilian cuisine and highly recognized writers and publications (Coria, Correnti, Taylor Simeti, Tasca Lanza, ….I could go on), but also by the less known ones (Maria Consoli Sardo, Di Leo, D’Alba,….I could go on).

The variations in the recipes (quantities and methods) I found in the different publications for making this preserve were many. Some recipes directed peeling the fruit first, others boiled the peel several times and discarded the water and some added sugar after boiling the pulp; there were almost as many variations for making marmalade as I found in my old Australian publications (for example The older South Australians may remember the Green and Gold Cookery book).

The two recipes I ended up liking the most were: Marmellata di Limone (in Bitter Almonds, Maria Grammatico and Mary Taylor Simeti) and Conserva di Citru (in Profumi di Sicilia, Giuseppe Coria).

Maria Grammatico and Mary Taylor Simeti suggested pricking all of the lemons with a fork, putting them in water and letting them soak for 5 days, changing the water every day.

In Coria’s recipe the lemons were soaked (un-pricked) for 24 hours.

One recipe suggested mincing, the other grating the fruit.

Grammatico / Taylor Simeti suggested weighing the pulp and using 1¼ their weight in sugar. Coria suggested adding 2 kilo of sugar for every 3 kilo of pulp and 1 cup of water, but what I liked about his recipe was the addition of a cinnamon stick which was also mentioned in many other of my older Italian publications (most that do not include amounts of ingredients).

What I did was:
  • pricked the lemons and soaked them for 3 days. I thought that pricking the lemons would soften the skins and it did
  • used a mandoline to slice the lemons into medium sized julienne pieces – I decided I liked texture
  •  reduced the amount of sugar to 1kilo of sugar to 2 kilo of pulp, added 3 cinnamon sticks and no water
  • cooked the pulp until set – mine took about 40 minutes. (You know the old trick about testing jam/ marmalade by placing a little on a cold saucer, cooling it, and if adequately set it should wrinkle and feel firm)
  •  placed the conserva into hot sterilized jars.

The flavour of my conserve is very intense and very lemony, but the texture is a little rubbery (maybe I cooked it too long). I am also disappointed that I am unable to taste the cinnamon and noticed that the sticks also break up during the cooking. I expected the conserve to be a lighter colour – the cinnamon may have contributed to the darker shade .

I wanted my conserva to be perfect and I was going to give a jar of it to Marianna. It seemed a fair exchange – my labour of love, for many of hers.

 

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