If you’re in Italy and you forgot to pick up a gift for a friend or relative, you can run to your local supermarket and improvise – even if it’s Christmas Eve. I’ve already mentioned how much of an education it is to walk around a foreign supermarket. Well, it was a joy to do so during the holiday season. Ischia’s supermarkets are full of even more treasures this time of year. On a few of our recent trips, I brought a camera, so I could share the experience with you. Here is what those last-minute shoppers in Ischia might be picking up today:
Baby Boy and I have been baking cookies every weekend for a month straight now. The house constantly smells of dough and sugar, which is much better than the usual dirty diapers. And boy does that cookie perfume go a long way to putting you in the Christmas spirit. The cookies also serve a more practical purpose. Here in Italy, people don’t exchange too many gifts. A few little somethings for family members and a couple of toys for the tikes are about all the present giving you are expected to do. But Italians – at least here in the south – give each other food, often wrapped up beautifully in a basket. This season I have already received a homemade after-dinner liqueur made of the nespola fruit, chocolate-covered peanuts (tastes almost like the Baci chocolate), and a bag of lemons and other citrus fruits. I have given out homemade honey roasted peanuts, traditional American cookies, and candy (mostly M&Ms, Hershey bars, and Reese’s). Here is a scrapbook of the sweet treats Baby Boy and I have shared with our Italian friends and family:
Sunday is funday in most Italian houses (even for some of us who usually live outside Italy). It’s a chance to get together with the extended family and talk and eat and eat and eat some more. Notice a theme? Well, last Sunday (yesterday) was a religious holiday in Italy; it was the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and the day set aside for decorating for the holidays. Even though my in-laws live together and eat together every day, yesterday they put out a special spread. The star of the show was the meat we grilled right in the family fireplace. We also regularly char our bread in there. Talk about snap, crackle, and pop!
Sausage and lamb fresh from the fire was an experience. I’m not a big fan of lamb, but that sausage was crispy on the outside and smoky and flavorful on the inside. It was a delicious start to the holiday season and brought me back to childhood. My father would bring us to Italy, have us a hike the mountains of Buceto (a wooded area here in Ischia), make a fire, and cook a picnic for us. The scent of the fire is all it takes to bring me back to those happy moments, and the addition of the meat made those long-ago days seem all the more recent.
When it’s raining on an island, the ocean comes to your door. If you don’t have to go out, you don’t go out. Since it poured all day, you can bet that I was in the kitchen cookin’ up something good. I decided to try and replicate a turkey cupcake cake I saw on Pinterest. I couldn’t possibly use as many cupcakes as in the photo because I didn’t have a tray big enough. But my scaled back version is still cute if I do say so myself. And it was much easier than I thought it would be. I made the funfetti cupcakes and chocolate and vanilla frosting that I’ve been making often recently. I made most of the cupcakes in small silicone forms, but I also made a few bigger ones in larger disposable aluminum tins. Once the cupcakes cooled, I used one larger cupcake to serve as the turkey’s body and then positioned the smaller cupcakes around it in anticipation of creating a turkey head and feathers. The cupcakes should all touch one another. You could make yours bigger by adding another row of cupcakes.
I had disposable cake decorating bags, but you could use Ziploc bags with the points cut off for the same effect. I decorated the head and body with chocolate icing. Then, I dyed some of the vanilla frosting with red food coloring. Warning about this – I ended up having to settle for pink feathers because I had already used too much food coloring and the liquid from it was thinning out the icing too much. Gel food coloring might have been different. Or you could make them orange or green or some other color you like. Rather than doing my usual circles with the icing, I tried to elongate my strokes, so they looked more oval like a feather would be. I was also sure that the icing on each cupcake touched the ones next to it just a bit, so it looked like they were all part of the same turkey.
My husband insisted the turkey had legs. So, I cut two long strips of yellow construction paper and folded them accordion style. Then, I cut out triangles and cut out another little triangle in each to create claw-like turkey feet. And I glued those little claws onto the bottom of the strips of folded paper and just tucked them underneath the body (with nothing to secure them). You could make them ahead of time and tape them to the tray before adding the cupcakes if you have more forethought than I do. I brought the “turkey,” along with the Thanksgiving invite, to my in-laws, who seemed to appreciate both. Mission Thanksgiving in Italy is underway.
My family is new to Thanksgiving. Having moved from Ischia, Italy in the 1960s, they didn’t always know of this holiday. The first time they made turkey they cooked it with the plastic-covered giblets still in the cavity of the bird. They’ve gotten to know turkey – and how to cook it – since then. But it’s always been more of a side dish than the star of the meal. Lasagna or baked pasta or manicotti has always overshadowed the bird on our table. So, what Italian dishes show up on your Thanksgiving table? Let us know by taking the poll to the right of this entry. Can’t wait to see the results. I’m getting hungry just thinking about it.
Over the weekend my in-laws were itchin’ to try the Chinese food from New Jersey, which I always mention, mostly because I’m always craving it myself. Purists, don’t bother writing to tell me that what I like is American versions of somewhat Chinese food, etc., etc. I don’t care. It reminds me of home, and I love it. Of course, on Ischia, a small Italian island, there simply is no P.F. Chang’s or Panda Express, nor can you easily replicate your own Chinese food at home. With soy sauce and ginger (which are available on the island nowadays) and a few other ingredients, I was able to make Tyler Florence’s egg drop soup, and an Italian version (it includes soy sauce and balsamic vinegar) of Chinese chicken wings from Giada de Laurentiis. To top it off, I tried my hand at making fortune cookies for the first time. It was the most fun I’ve had in months and not at all as difficult as I’d imagined. Plus, the cookies tasted better, especially when I had the brilliant idea of serving them alongside pineapple chunks and Nutella for dipping everything. Definitely try dipping your fortune cookies in Nutella the next time you order take out. You won’t be disappointed.
I translated some popular Confucius quotes from English to Italian for the fortunes. Here are a few of my favorites:
“Chi butta l’orologio nel whiskey, perde tempo.” = “He who drop watch in whiskey, wastes time.”
“Ascolto, dimentico. Vedo, ricordo. Faccio, capisco.” = “I hear and forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”
“La vita e’ facile ma noi la facciamo complicata.” = “Life is simple but we make it complicated.”
The only warning I have about these fortune cookies is that with the high humidity in Ischia, they were already pretty stale the next day. I should have put them in a sealed container or Ziploc bag. Also, some of the fortunes got stuck to the cookie, which was a major bummer. Going to try thicker paper next time. Still, the in-laws were impressed and actually got a little taste of Chinese take out all the way in Ischia. Can you imagine? (More photos below)
Strawberries are one of my favorite fruits. Every year for my birthday in October, I celebrate with a strawberry shortcake. In Ischia, strawberries are hard to come by when they’re not in season (which is how things probably should be). So, I settled for a yellow cake with chocolate frosting (see photo below) that I made myself and a Napoleon cake that my mother-in-law got for me. My husband wanted to give me strawberries, so a few weeks after my birthday he was able to special order a couple of small boxes of strawberries. It wasn’t enough for shortcake, so I decided to cover them in chocolate instead. As I was dipping the tiniest of strawberries into the sweet stuff, I came across these mutants. There were miniscule green leaves coming out of the body of the berry. I had never seen such a strawberry, so I had to share it. If anyone knows what causes this, please clue me in. Otherwise, just behold the image. It’s like a train wreck. Can’t stop lookin’ can you?
I did not misspell spooky in the headline of this blog. That’s right. I meant to write “shpooky.” After all, my Italian American relatives can’t say spooky. They say shpooky. In fact, my zia famously referred to houses that one of her children considered buying 30 minutes away from hers as “shpooky” because they had wooded areas in the backyard and nearby. Apparently, it’s shpooky to live amid nature – not to mention that far away from your mamma. Who knew? Well, now we all know. Zia certainly said, “Shpooky house,” enough. Since then, we all say, “shpooky” even if English is our native language. When I cleverly made these pancakes for my son (at least I think they’re clever), I called them “shpooky ghosts.” I used mini M&Ms, which I attached with a dot of Nutella for the eyes. I did not use any form or cookie cutter or anything. I just dumped the batter into the pan and worked with whatever shape came out. Of course, more careful moms could be a little neater with the Nutella. And the Halloween-appropriate Monsters Inc. dish was a bonus. In conclusion, I just want to wish you the shpookiest Halloween ever!
When I handed an authentic Halloween treat – M&Ms and a lollipop dressed up like a ghost to name a couple – to my friend, whose family owns Trattoria Il Focolare in Ischia, Italy, he brought me two pumpkin-focused appetizers. In the spirit of friendship and the season, I had to give them a try. It was a delicious obligation. The pumpkin croquettes had a slight tang to them thanks to the pumpkin sauce on top of them. And the savory baba’ with more of Ischia’s seasonal mushrooms were nicely complimented by more pumpkin sauce. Yum!