Friday, November 7, 2008

Rice Pudding and Grandma's Cake

There is something about your local barista or owner of the coffee shop that you frequent, recognizing and greeting you, that makes you feel like you finally belong in Italy.

Last summer I sat in the bright wood panel dinning room dipping fruit filled pastries into gently steamed cappuccinos at La Loggia degli Albizi, a coffee and bakery shop that also serves lunch located on Borgo degli Albizi. At that time I was hesitant to greet Walter Penna (pronounced Valter), one of the owners, who skillfully made me drinks from cappuccinos to frothy café shakerato.

Positioned on a street that gets a good amount of foot traffic, customers are a mix of locals, American students and others who are passing a definite time in Florence. I was in the last category. So I did not feel comfortable joining in the conversations that took place at the counter among the patrons and owners.

It was not until the end of my stay, that I finally broke the ice. Normally I ordered from the selection of dough-based pastries and would ignore the case displaying gorgeous cookies and cakes. One day I decided to switch it up.

I ordered a slice of torta (cake) with fig mixed between the layers. When I tried to say fig, I mispronounced fico, vulgarly asking for a piece of cake flavored with a part of the female body.

The person with me unnecessarily died of shame and left me at the counter to deal with the mishap. I did. I made him smile. Since then I have felt like Norm entering Cheers, except no one shouts out my name.

I knew they made everything on site, but did not imagine the elaborate operation that I saw when Penna took me into the laboratorio. I followed him through a door into a small hall that was the gateway to the bakery. Machines were mixing; dough was rolling and wafts of sweet scents swirled in the room.

Penna’s mysterious, never seen before by me, mentor was happily preparing the days sweets. An artisan, Franco Iandelli learned the craft of baking from his father who in turn was taught by his father. Three generations and possibly more are behind the sfoglia (puff pastry) filled with ricotta, cornetto con albiccoca (croissant with apricot) and custom favorites such as, Torta della Nonna (grandma’s cake) and Budini di Riso (rice pudding).

Torta della Nonna begins with pasta frollo (shortcrust pastry). The dough that serves as the base is rolled flat, stamped out by a round cookie cutter, and pierced to prevent swelling.

Once baked and cooled, crema (custard) is spread and smoothed over it to resemble schienna d’asino (donkey’s back), or a mound. The filling is covered with another piece of circular dough — making no difference if it is pierced. That is impressed with the bottom of a pastry bag tip, sealing the contents and making a unique design.

The torta is glazed with egg for color; a handful of almonds are placed on top and it is ready to bake.

The cake is placed in an extremely high hot oven, between 210-220 degrees, to only bake the top. When the cake cools it is dusted with powdered sugar.

The Italian version of rice pudding, Budino di Riso is also prepared with pasta frollo. The pasta is pressed into oblong molds to create the shell.

In a separate bowl, prepared rice — cooked in milk with just a pinch of salt — is mixed with egg, sugar, butter and heaps of crema. After those ingredients are evenly stirred, they are piped into the molds and placed into the oven at 190-200 degrees Celsius for 20-30 minutes.

When cooking the rice, it is important to continuously stir the mixture so that it does not stick to the pan. Although no flavoring is used in the milk, lemon zest or liquore could be added if one prefers, Penne said. La crema, which is made with lemon zest, contributes the smooth texture and sweet taste to both desserts. The recipe could also be followed to make, Torta di Riso, by following the steps described in Torta della Nonna.

Originally from Rome, Penne’s family has been serving Florence dolci for 25 years. When their baker retired in 1988, Penne was required to fill the position.

“I had to do this . . . because of life circumstances. Not like Franco who comes from three generations of bakers,” he said.

Although he was formally trained he credits Iandelli for what he knows.

“He has been my teacher,” he said.

Making confections since he was 10, Iandelli shared the vitals of the profession.

“There are four basics one must master,” he said. “Crema, lievito (dough made with yeast or sourdough), bigne (the cream puff shell) and sfoglia; if one can make all of those they have learned the art of baking.”

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