It’s here! The latest cookbook written by everyone’s favorite Italian chef is out in bookstores and it’s wonderful. Lidia Mattichio Bastianich, along with her daughter Tanya, has done it again. Lidia has criss-crossed the country to talk to and write about Italian-Americans who have left their mark on their communities and cuisine – recipes that include crab cakes from Baltimore to prickly pear granita from California. They may sound like American foods, but as Lidia explains, the recipes have their origins in Italy and pay homage to their homeland in a delicious new way.
Ciao Chow Linda: Why did you write this particular book? What is there to say about Italian-American cuisine that you haven’t already said or written about in prior cookbooks?
Lidia: “I have dedicated my career to transporting the real Italian culture, its history and its products to Americans. I came here as an Italian, but I also feel very American and I wanted to bring the two cultures together. I’m a good conduit. It was all about bringing the real Italy to the real America. I said I want to find out about the Italians in America. How is this Italian culture part of America? Yes, there is Italy in the memories, but this is about America. This book does just that. It traces the immigrants’ contributions, the happenings and the flavors that are important to them.
There are still all kinds of hubs of ‘Italianissimo’ in the U.S., if you will, three or four generations later – neighborhoods where the original immigrants settled, and the roots are still there. Not only did they settle, they brought their cousins, their brothers, and other relatives to places like Napa Valley, for instance. The Swiss Colony was one of the first wine businesses in Napa Valley and it was started by Italians from Northern Italy. One could say the Italians were the great initiators of wine in California.
Vegetables like artichokes and broccoli rape are easily available to Americans now, but it took four generations for this to happen. The California company ‘Andy Boy’ was founded by Italians who brought seeds of broccoli rape from Italy. The need to have the food they know from home – that quest to have those ingredients, to grow, to manufacture – was strong.”
Ciao Chow Linda: “Speaking of broccoli rape, (pronounced RAH-pay) is that the right way to say it, rather than rabe (RAHB)?”
Lidia: “Yes, that is the correct way to spell it and say it. But as cuisine changes, language changes too. It’s constantly in evolution.”
Ciao Chow Linda: “What is the biggest misconception people have about Italian food?”
Lidia: “I think the most common misconception I see is that when you serve pasta as the big center of a meal with lots of sauce. The pasta is smothered in the sauce – the heaviness of it – that’s not really Italian. Italian cuisine delivers a lot of flavor but it’s not heavy.
Ciao Chow Linda: How do you feel about the cooking that’s presented in Italian-American chain restaurants?
Lidia: They really don’t get it. That kind of cooking doesn’t represent the Italian cuisine. Nowadays, everybody can really cook true Italian cuisine. The products are there. Chains are doing an injustice to the Italian cuisine. There’s a lot of economics and costs involved and many times they use the cheaper products – putting a lot of fat into it and all of that. It doesn’t represent Italian cuisine – it’s a shame they’re missing the boat, because they could really do justice to the Italian food and their customers and still make a profit.
Ciao Chow Linda: What do you eat when you don’t feel like cooking? Do you ever get take-out food?
Lidia: It’s almost always antipasto foods that deliver a lot of flavor – a slice of prosciutto, a little anchovies, if I’m not very hungry. If I’m more hungry, I’ll cook some spaghetti with garlic, oil, and peperoncino.
I do take out, but usually it’s from a different culture. I like Asian food – sushi, Korean and Chinese.
Ciao Chow Linda: What’s in your refrigerator that people would be surprised to see?
Lidia: Very prominent in front is peanut butter and jelly – and I love it. I’m trying to stay a little off of starches, so I use it on those rice cakes. That’s not part of my heritage but it’s part of me coming to America and it was an introductory food. But I eat it on rice cakes, not on Wonder Bread.
Ciao Chow Linda: Everyone loves seeing your family and especially your grandchildren and your mother on your tv show. Was your mother your greatest influence in the kitchen and does she ever take over the cooking at home?
Lidia: She was a good cook, but not a great cook. She worked as an elementary school teacher. It was her mother – my grandmom – who influenced me more in the kitchen. There are certain things my mother does cook for me. If I’m traveling you can bet she has some soup waiting for me when I get home. I get organic chickens for her, and split them for her, and separate them. She’ll take all the bones and all of that and makes soups – she adds all the veggies. She’s still digging carrots out of the garden and celery still in the garden. Most likely when I come back I’ll find a little soup. She also loves to make palacinka. She makes the crepes and fills them with jam and the children love that.
Children need to grow in a setting and need to be familiar with a food to eat it. If you cook broccoli at home when you have a newborn, the newborn will be accustomed to the smell, so when he’s a year old he will begin to investigate it. Children need to evolve into their smell, sight and ultimately they’ll eat it. You can’t never have cooked a certain vegetable and go someplace and say ‘Now you’re going to eat it’ to a four -year old. Even a mother when she’s carrying a baby or nursing is familiarizing the child with these flavors.
I think they’re will be more restaurants, but not with me on the front page – with my children. I’m sure there will be new restaurants on the horizon but they have to be led by son, by Mario (Batali), my daughter, or somebody else.
From “Lidia’s Italy In America”
Boston cream cakes do not sound Italian, but this recipe was given to me by Italians. At Scialo Brothers Bakery in Rhode Island, we found trays upon trays of little chocolate- covered spheres. I thought they were some version of a cassata (a Sicilian domelike cake stuffed with ricotta cream—see page 318), but instead they were individual Boston cream pies. The French chef Sanzian, who worked at the Parker House Hotel (now the Omni Parker House) in Boston is credited with having invented the Boston cream pie. Italian or not, these were delicious.
Make the pastry cream: Whisk together the sugar, cornstarch, and salt in a medium pot. While whisking, pour in the milk. Set the pot over medium- low heat, and heat the mixture to just below boiling. Meanwhile, whisk the eggs in a large bowl. Remove the pot from heat, and pour the milk slowly into the eggs, whisking constantly, to temper the eggs. Pour the mixture back into the saucepan, and stir constantly over medium- low heat until the mixture thickens and just begins to simmer. Immediately scrape the mixture into a clean bowl. Let it cool slightly, then cover the surface of the pastry cream with plastic wrap. Refrigerate several hours or overnight, until chilled and thickened.
Make the cakes: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a twelve-unit cupcake pan with paper liners. Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt onto a piece of parchment.
Cream the butter and sugar in a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Crack in the eggs, one at a time, mixing well between additions. Stir in the olive oil, vanilla, and zest. Beat on high speed for 2 minutes, to lighten and smooth the batter. Mix in the flour in three additions on low speed, alternating with the orange juice, beginning and ending with the flour. Once everything has been added, beat the batter on high speed for about 20 seconds.
Divide the batter evenly among the cupcake liners. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the center of a cupcake comes out clean, about 20 to 25 minutes. Remove the cupcakes from pan, and cool completely on a wire rack.
For The Pastry Cream
1⁄2 cup sugar
4 teaspoons cornstarch
Pinch kosher salt
2 cups milk
2 large eggs
For The Cakes
1 1⁄2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1⁄2 teaspoons baking powder
1⁄2 teaspoon baking soda
1⁄8 teaspoon kosher salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
3⁄4 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon orange zest
3⁄4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
For The Glaze
2⁄3 cup light corn syrup
2 tablespoons dark rum
Pinch kosher salt
8 ounces semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
Make the glaze: Combine the corn syrup, rum, salt, and 2 tablespoons water in a small pot. Bring to a boil, and simmer until slightly thickened, about 2 minutes. Put the chopped chocolate in a heat- proof bowl, and pour the syrup over the chocolate. Stir until the glaze is smooth and shiny and all of the chocolate is melted. Let cool until thickened and just warm to the touch.
To assemble the cakes: Remove the cupcake liners from the cakes.
Split the cakes at the base of the cap with a serrated knife.
To finish: Invert one cake, and place the cake cap on a plate, cut side up. Spoon the pastry cream onto the cake top, then top with inverted cake bottom, like an upside-down mushroom. Spoon the hot chocolate glaze onto the base facing you, letting the glaze run down the sides of the cake, spooning on more if necessary. Repeat with the remaining filled cakes.
Excerpted from Lidia’s Italy in America by Lidia Bastianich. Copyright © 2011 by Lidia Bastianich. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.