Buon Anno a tutti! Happy New Year.
As I sit here writing and thinking about the year ahead, I am (literally) surrounded by the past. During the Christmas break, my husband and I decided to start a long-overdue project to clean and reorganize our basement. So far, we have said farewell to five huge bins of baby clothes (minus a few choice items we couldn’t bear to part with); two broken easels; our daughter’s Littlest Pet Shop collection; and our son’s Rokenbok set (but not the Thomas trains or Hess trucks).
At the moment, half my kitchen floor is occupied by stacks of Gourmet magazines, removed from the various boxes in which they had been randomly stashed and finally put into chronological order. They date back to 1990, when I first became a subscriber, and continue right up to November 2009, the magazine’s final issue.
My intent, when I lugged them all up from the basement, was to organize and re-box them, and donate them to charity (I was told that food magazines are popular). Instead, I flipped one open and found myself reading what turned out to be Laurie Colwin’s last Home Cooking column before she died. After that, I picked up another issue (I didn’t note the date), and here was Craig Claiborne writing hilariously about his first—and presumably last—fox hunt in Virginia (unable to control his horse, he found himself, absurdly, ahead of the fox). I am not making this up. Gourmet, I decided, is staying.
* all of the New Yorker special issues on food, plus the winter and summer fiction issues, and three 9/11-related issues with brilliant covers.
* my mother’s collection of vintage La Cucina Italiana magazines dating back to 1962, which she generously turned over to me in 2004 when I began writing my first cookbook.
I have special plans for those issues of La Cucina Italiana, so please stay tuned. And there are other cooking and writing projects percolating as well. First and foremost, though, in eight short weeks (yikes) I’ll be submitting the manuscript for The Glorious Vegetables of Italy, scheduled to be published by Chronicle Books in 2013. So for the time being I’m staying focused on wrapping up the recipe testing and writing writing writing.
And that means that, at least for now, I’m keeping it simple in the kitchen. I’m starting the year with this plain, vanilla-scented cake. Far from being new, it is an old favorite in our house. My kids call it Nonna’s cake, because my mom makes it for them whenever they visit her or she visits us. Otherwise, it’s known as “ciambellone” or “ciambellotto”, both of which translate to ‘big ring.’ See? Simple.
Ciambellone is nothing like an American layer cake; there is nothing fancy about it, and it requires neither frosting nor a fork. The cake is sturdy, with a dense crumb, but somehow still moist (I know that sounds impossible but when you make it you’ll see what I mean). It’s a good breakfast cake and good for an afternoon snack, too. It is, in fact, the perfect dunking cake, whether you are dunking in cappuccino, American coffee, hot chocolate, or a glass of cold milk.
My mother makes this cake the “old-fashioned” way; that is, she mounds the dry ingredients on the countertop as though she were making pasta, and works in eggs, softened butter, and cream with her hands to form a very soft dough. I actually enjoy working the dough by hand; it gets messy and quite sticky before it comes together, and therein, of course, lies the appeal. If you haven’t made a cake this way, give it a try. Otherwise, use a large stand mixer, which works just as well.
Adapted from Big Night In: More Than 100 Wonderful Recipes for Feeding Family and Friends Italian-Style (Chronicle Books, 2008)
A dunking cake if ever there was one, this is my mother’s recipe, which is based on her mother’s recipe. Our family has been devouring it for at least three generations. The secret ingredient is a sweet, citrus-infused liqueur from Abruzzo (see Cook’s Note). Perhaps it is what makes this cake such a big hit with children.
Makes one 10-inch ring cake
6 to 7 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus additional for dusting the tube pan and for kneading the dough
1/4 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature and cut into 1/2-inch pieces, plus additional for greasing the tube pan
3 cups sugar
6 large eggs
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons whole milk, light cream, or half-and-half
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon pure almond extract
2 tablespoons Punch Abruzzese liqueur or dark rum (see Cooks’ Note)
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 tablespoons Swedish pearl sugar or granulated sugar for sprinkling (see Cook’s Note)
Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter and flour a 10-inch ring or tube pan and set aside.
In a large bowl, whisk together 6 cups flour, the sugar, and the salt. Dump the mixture out onto a clean work surface, and make a mound with a wide well in the center. Carefully crack the eggs into the well and use a fork to break the yolks and gently whisk the eggs.
Begin to incorporate a little of the dry ingredients as you mix. Add the pieces of butter (they should be very soft) and stir them around into the egg-flour mixture, gradually incorporating more flour as you work.
Pour in the vanilla and almond extracts and the Punch Abruzzese or rum, and then the milk. Sprinkle in the baking powder and baking soda and continue to incorporate flour into the mixture. At this point, start using your hands to mix the ingredients together.
Don’t worry if the well springs a leak; just use your hands to bring everything back together. Within a couple of minutes the dough will turn from a rough, sticky and “shaggy” mass to a soft and smooth, but still sticky, dough. Sprinkle in a little more flour if necessary, just enough to allow you to roll the dough out into a soft, thick log. Carefully pick up the log of dough with both hands and arrange it in the prepared tube pan, spreading it around evenly.
Bake the cake for 20 minutes. Reduce the heat to 325 and continue to bake for another 25 to 30 minutes, or until it has risen and is browned on top, but not quite set. Brush the cake with the 2 remaining tablespoons of milk and sprinkle with the pearl or granulated sugar. Return the cake to the oven for 5 to 10 minutes more, or until a cake tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean and the top of the cake is golden-brown. Transfer the pan to a rack to cool for 20 to 30 minutes. Remove the cake from the pan and let it cool to room temperature. Transfer the cake, sugar-side-up, to a decorative platter before serving.
Cook’s Note: Punch Abruzzese is produced outside of Chieti, my mother’s hometown. It is a sweet, potent liqueur made from caramelized sugar and the zest of lemons and oranges. Punch is not easy to find, and I am still searching for a good Internet source for it; but it is worth knowing about, which is why I mention it here. It is considered a good after-dinner digestive and is delicious drizzled over vanilla ice cream. If you are unable to find it, substitute Cointreau, Grand Marnier, or dark rum (mixed with a little orange and lemon zest, if you like).
* Update: I just learned from food blogger Adri Barr Crocetti that there is a place in Florida that stocks Punch Abruzzese. Here is a link to Adri’s post about this wonderful liquor, which includes information on where you can find it stateside.
Swedish pearl sugar consists of bright white, irregularly shaped granules of sugar. It is often used as a decorative touch in European baked goods and is available online from King Arthur Flour.