Saturday, February 21, 2009

Florentine Renaissance Bites (wonkish)

Wonkish- I think- means academic or cerebral or maybe just on and on with the details.  For people who have a deep interest in the subject.

For my January Book Club (at my house) we read The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant, which was set in Florence during the Renaissance.  This was a significant period in culinary arts as well as the other arts.  For one thing, the spice routes were well established so new and exotic ingredients from the East and South were available.  For another thing, Europe was relatively peaceful so trade flourished and people were exposed to different styles and preparations.  The rise of the Merchant middle/upper class meant a greatly expanded demand for fine dining (previously, as I understand it, there was royalty food and peasant subsistance food).  Caterina De Medici, the daughter of the famous family of politicians and patrons of the arts, is often credited with ushering in  the start of modern French cooking when she was wed to the King of France.

So anyway, from an actual medieval recipe in Kaspar's The Splendid Table, I made a sweet capellini pie- a sturdy pastry crust filled with a mixture of cooked angel hair pasta, ground almonds, sugar, butter, and whipped eggs.  The juxtaposition of sweet and savory together was a hallmark of the late medieval/early renaissance periods

 Since chestnut was a staple in Italy at that time, I made a light sponge cake rolled around sweetened chestnut puree:
For a savory, I wanted to utilize some of the exotic spice combinations that were popular at the time.  I chose to make small meat pies using ground turkey, onions, sultanas (yellow raisins), pine nuts, ginger, garlic, cinnamon, and cloves.  I used a touch of Penzeys Garam Masala, too, which contains a nice mix of a bunch of Indian spices like cardamom, fenugreek....

The dough was lightly sweet yeast dough with saffron.  These were baked in the oven.

 Finally I made a thin chickpea flour pancake filled with fresh ricotta and sauteed Swiss Chard.

By the time my guests got to the food these had lost the charms of the crispy hot olive oil-fried edges but in my opinion they were a happy discovery.

Apparently anyone who has spent quality time noshing street food in the French or Italian Mediterranean coast is familiar with Socca or Farinata, which is the name fort these pancakes.  There, they are cooked over an outdoor steel drum griddle and served plain.  In Florence, they are known as cecini, derived from ceci, a name for garbanzos.  The batter of the pancake is simply chickpea flour (Bob's Red Mill makes it) mixed with water to the consistency of heavy cream, and seasoned with salt and plenty of pepper.  Finish the batter off with a bit of extra virgin olive oil, and then fry it, crepe style, in more of the same.  I really liked these.

A few days after book club I had a friend over for lunch and served the Socca filled with a mixture of feta and ricotta, as well as sauteed spinach.  We had a light and healthy Carrot Ginger puree soup as well, and, rather a nonsequiter, those crescent rolls from a tube.  Well, those were bought for the kids, but it's kind of hard to say no when they're piping hot on the table, you know?

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