For whatever reason, some things are doomed to failure, and no matter how hard one tries, all the effort expended to prevent that outcome ends up being a waste of time, or money, or energy, or in the case of the Mini, a waste of all three.
This is not unlike a manuscript that was recently sent to me by my good friend Toby over at Plate Fodder – A Taste For Italian: Celebrating Italy’s Cuisine, Music and Language. The title is the first clue that all is not right here; I’ve managed to get past the irritating lack of an Oxford Comma, but not the fact that it sounds like the author has a hankering to eat the country’s people, rather than its food.
A bit of back story: A Taste For Italian is a unpublished manuscript that was found in an antique store (like a lot of things related to this book, we’re using terms loosely) by the lovely Julie over at Cookbook Fetish. The manuscript is described by its authors as “preliminary,” and that’s a good word. Julie sent the manuscript over to Toby, who described it as “uninspired,” also a good word. Toby then sent the manuscript over to me, and rather than try to sum it up in one word, I chose my Mini as a metaphor: A lot of time and effort went in, but in the end, it came to naught. It’s the car that everyone trades in.
The manuscript, such as it is, isn’t really a cookbook, or a travelogue, or a cultural history, or an appreciation of things Italian. Unfortunately, it tries to be all of these things, at once, and the result is a stream-of-consciousness hodge-podge of opera snippets and history (Aida was first performed in Cairo in 1871, and one song has “virtually become the National Anthem of Egypt”), Berlitz-style helpful phrases (“Is the pizza ready? I’m dying of hunger!”), and restaurant listings (in case you happen to be in Bologna in 1997).
Julie and Toby each cooked a recipe or two from the manuscript, but I didn’t even get that far, though it wasn’t for lack of effort. I got stuck on a recipe for The Child’s favorite soup, minestrone – it seemed like a fairly safe bet because, at the end of the day, how do you screw up soup?
This is how:
- Don’t list the ingredients in the order in which they will be used, or in any particular order whatsoever.
- Be nonspecific about your ingredients: If you don’t care whether the kidney beans are canned or dried, your reader surely won’t wonder which to use.
- In the recipe steps, don’t use all the ingredients you have listed. (I should probably have listed this last step first, as it’s the most important, but maybe it’s at the end for emphasis?)
If you construct your recipe this way, your reader won’t be able to guess which type of beans to be using or at what point said beans should be added to the pot. They will, however, go back over the out-of-order list repeatedly in an attempt to figure out what else was omitted (the answer is the first ingredient, potatoes). They’ll have to check things off because the list order doesn’t correspond to the steps or any other sequence; in doing so, they will discover that a couple of ingredients are added twice (garlic and onion). Then they will get tired of trying to sort it all out, and will open a can of Progresso for The Child.
I still had the challenge of making something inspired by the manuscript, so I went with focaccia, inspired less by the manuscript and more by Toby’s take on focaccia, but also my recent success with the Saltie cookbook. Saltie is a Brooklyn sandwich shop, which uses focaccia in most of its offerings. I made the recipe twice, and had no trouble following it, and better yet, The Child loved this simple bread with lots of salt. The recipe would easily make 6-8 sandwiches, maybe more, but she just cut large hunks of it and ate them plain.
The downside of a recipe that makes this much is that some is likely to go bad, since it’s only good for about 24 hours. On the other hand, the cookbook suggests that day-old focaccia is wonderful added to soup, and if I can find a recipe for minestrone that uses all its ingredients, I might just make some.
I did find the focaccia made absolutely superb sandwiches, and I tried one of the recipes from the book, the “Ship’s Biscuit”. This blissfully simple sandwich relies on the freshness of one ingredient – use only fresh ricotta cheese, not that packaged supermarket stuff – and the technique used with the other ingredient – the eggs, which should be “softly scrambled.” It took a while for me to master the technique, which is basically this: melt some butter in a frying pan, then crack two eggs into the warm (not hot) pan. When the whites begins to set, start moving them around the pan with a small rubber spatula but don’t break the yolks until the whites are completely cooked and fluffed up. Then, take the pan off the heat, break the yolks, stirring them in with the whites while letting them cook over the residual heat. You may have to play with this a couple of times to get it right, but when you do, you’ll know – the eggs will be fluffy, yet with a nice softness of yolk.
To make the sandwich, take a piece of the focaccia, slice open for a sandwich, spread some fresh ricotta on the bottom half, and the soft-scrambled eggs on top. Then scarf it down and be amazed by the creamy, eggy texture against the salty, oily focaccia.
I’m thankful to Julie and Toby for letting me share the fun with A Taste For Italian. If you’d like the information on how to join in, or just what the heck is going on, it’s here.
I am eagerly awaiting my instructions on where the manuscript will head next!
- 6¼ cups all-purpose flour
- 2 tablespoons kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon active dry yeast
- 3½ cups warm water
- ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for greasing and drizzling
- Coarse sea salt
- In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, and yeast. Add the warm water to the flour mixture and stir with a wooden spoon until all the flour is incorporated and a sticky dough forms (no need to knead). Pour the ¼ cup olive oil into a 6-quart plastic food container with a tight-fitting lid (see Note). Transfer the focaccia dough to the plastic container, turn to coat, and cover tightly. Place in the refrigerator to rise for at least 8 hours or for up to 2 days.
- Oil an 18-by-13-inch baking sheet. Remove the focaccia dough from the refrigerator and transfer to the prepared pan. Using your hands spread the dough out on the prepared pan much as possible, adding oil to the dough as needed to keep it from sticking. Place the dough in a warm place and let rise until about doubled in bulk. The rising time will vary considerably depending on the season. (In the summer, it may take only 20 minutes for the dough to warm up and rise; in the winter it can take an hour or more.)
- When the dough is ready, it should be room temperature, spread out on the sheet, and fluffy feeling. Pat down the focaccia to an even thickness of about 1 inch on the baking sheet tray and begin to make indentations in the dough with your fingertips. Dimple the entire dough and then drizzle the whole thing again with olive oil. Sprinkle the entire surface of the focaccia evenly with sea salt.
- Preheat the oven to 450°F. Bake, rotating once front to back, until the top is uniformly golden brown, about 15 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool, then slide out of the pan. Use the same day.
- Note : This easy recipe calls for a large plastic food-storage container, about a 6-quart capacity, with a tight-fitting lid. Otherwise, you can use a large mixing bowl and cover the dough with plastic wrap. Unfortunately, focaccia suffers a rapid and significant deterioration in quality after the first day. It is also impossible to make bread crumbs with focaccia. Ideally, bake and eat focaccia on the same day. If there is some left over, wrap it tightly in plastic and store at room temperature for one day more. Day-old focaccia is delicious in soup.