Today is six weeks to the day that I returned from Italy.
That is stunning to me because in my mind, I still feel very much there. In the mornings, in particular, I can recreate my time in Italy with such clarity that I swear Iâ€™m sitting at my kitchen table in our little house waiting for the espresso to come up so I can have colazione (breakfast).
I can hear someone filling a container from the fontana (fountain) just steps outside our front door.
I hear someoneâ€™s boots on the ground as they walk past our door, on their way to one of the many trails that lead up to the castagne (chestnut trees). Itâ€™s that time of year, you see. Itâ€™s time to go and inspect the trees and clean any weeds or bushes that are growing nearby.
Our neighbour across the way is standing on her front step talking to her daughter on a cell phone (every Italian has a cell phone). I can hear everything sheâ€™s saying.
My uncle, next door, is in the back using the zappa (hoe) as he breaks up some hard-packed earth in his garden.
I hear it all until, with a start, I realize that Iâ€™m not actually there. Iâ€™m in Toronto, on a subway, on my way to work. And I love Toronto and my family and my home and my friends, but sometimes I just wish that I could stretch my hand out and touch that scene of me at the kitchen table in a house in Italy pouring espresso into a hot cup of milk.
I know, as completely as I know my own name, that those scenes flashing in my mind are as real and solid and as part of me as my daily subway rides to work.
It is a revelation to me, but it is so true, that as you get older the truth becomes clearer.
You really do learn who you are and what you are. You really do understand what is important and what is worth it.
Perhaps it has taken me longer than most, but Iâ€™m getting there. I get it. I understand.
I had many revelations on my trip.
Some good. Some sad. Some inspiring. Some funny. Some difficult.
But perhaps one of the most memorable was that it was revealed to me how to make a truly great crostata.
You may find that funny, but I think crostata-making is a life skill. For years, I have yearned for the recipe used by my oldest aunt.
My aunt has a presence that looms large over all off us. Her booming voice rings out constantly in my mind. She is the epitome of woman. Strong. Capable. Supportive. Hard-working. Graceful. Generous. Determined.
And she makes the best crostata ever.
So finally, after so much time, I got to watch her and her daughter make crostata one day. Like all things, it was so simple. And that, you see, is the key.
Itâ€™s never the complicated stuff. Itâ€™s always the simple stuff that makes the difference.
Within days of being home, I went into the kitchen and made a simple crostata.
It was a revelation.
Before I get to the recipe, I wanted to give you some background information on the exact nature of my auntâ€™s recipe for crostata. The ingredients are flour, eggs, sugar and butter and something she calls â€œmedicinaâ€. It is a substance that she buys at the pharmacy that is formulated to be used when making pastry dough. I asked about what exactly it was and the answers I got were exceedingly vague. As far as I can tell, itâ€™s a cross between flavouring (our pharmacy sold medicina that had essence of vanilla or essence of lemon) and baking powder. But donâ€™t quote me on that. If anyone has any information on what exactly medicina is, I would be grateful!
While I did not use medicina when I made this after returning to Toronto, I did use a product called â€œLievito Vaniglinato Bertoliniâ€. Toronto has a huge Italian population and thankfully we have easy access to many Italian products, including Bertolini products. This lievito is a powdered product (with the essence of vanilla) that as far as I can tell helps your baked products to get a good rise. I would compare it to a form of baking powder. I figured that it was as close to the medicina that my aunt buys as I could get.
The other key to my auntâ€™s crostata is the filling. She uses homemade jam (always) and she likes to mix in melted chocolate. While this may sound a bit odd, somehow it works as the chocolate gives the fruit jam a depth of flavour. The bitterness of the chocolate brings out the sweetness of the fruit. For my own versions, I used Italian prune jam and cherry jam.
In Italy, when baking, measurements are always by weight. Everyone has a scale and weighs out ingredients. While I plan on converting the measurements in this recipe to cups (one day), I have not done this yet. For those of you that are going to want conversions, my first piece of advice is to invest in a scale. If youâ€™re a baker, itâ€™s a key piece of equipment in the kitchen and nowadays you can buy good scales without spending a fortune. If buying a scale is out of the question, there are a lot of conversion tools on the internet but use them with caution. Iâ€™ll try to do conversions the next time I make this crostata but until then, I have only weights to offer you.
Crostata with Jam Filling
This recipe will yield two 9-inch crostatas. I baked them in a 9-inch cake pan.
500 grams (1/2 kilo) unbleached, all-purpose flour*
200 grams granulated sugar
1 package of Lievito Vaniglinato Bertolini
3 large eggs, room temperature
180 grams unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
2 cups jam or preserves (you can use any type of jam you wish)
*Extra flour for dusting your work surface
In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar and lievito. Mix well.
In a small bowl, lightly beat the eggs and then pour them into the flour mixture. Add the butter and mix well until you have a dough that comes together. If the mixture is dry, add a bit of milk or cold water, a tablespoon at a time, until your dough comes into a ball.
On a well-floured surface, knead the ball of dough a few times until itâ€™s smooth. Donâ€™t knead for too long or your dough will be too hard.
Divide the dough in half. Wrap one half of the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate while you make the first crostata.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. and lightly butter a cake pan.
Divide the ball of dough youâ€™re working with in half (half is for the crust and the other half is for the lattice top).
Place one half in your cake pan and gently flatten the dough until it covers the bottom of the pan evenly.
Take one cup of jam and spread evenly over the top of the dough.
With the other half of dough, break off one small piece at a time (pieces should be slightly bigger than a marble but not as big as a golf ball) and roll the pieces into ropes.
Carefully use the ropes to create a lattice top to the crostata. Some of the ropes may break but donâ€™t worry about it. Patch them together. Once the crostata bakes you wonâ€™t be able to tell and even if you can, itâ€™ll just make your crostata more â€œrusticâ€!
Once youâ€™ve created your lattice top, bake the crostata in the centre of the oven for 25 minutes.
The crostata will rise slightly and the lattice top will be golden. If the crostata is not cooked after 25 minutes, keep baking, checking every five minutes.
Remove the crostata from the oven and let cool before slicing into wedges. My aunt would slice crostata into diamond shapes and serve them on a pretty tray.