Saturday, January 31, 2009

Birthday Tarts (and chocolate)

9:00 PM Jan. 26

We got back to Florence around 1:00, and we were dropped off at the train station, only a five-minute walk from the apartment. Today was the birthday of our friend Jaimie, and it was expected that we’d bring a dish to the dinner that night. Recently at home, I made galettes, a French tart with a flour-cornmeal dough, which came out really nicely. I had made them once before, about a year ago, as a savory dish with roasted peppers, corn, sweet onions, and garlic. This past time, I made some with a creamy mushroom topping and then a dessert tart with apples that came out particularly well. I had been trying to think of a nice apple dessert to make for Jaimie, so I thought I’d give the galettes a shot.

I didn’t have the recipe with me, and although I remembered pretty well how to make it, it seemed a dangerous move to go about making dough without some sort of wet-dry ingredient guideline. Jaimie has a new patent-pending product called MagicJack in her room though, which allows her to plug a phone into her computer, and through the internet, she can call anyone in the United States as if it were a local call. I had used it once before to talk to my parents, and I asked her if I could use it again to find out the recipe from them. Unfortunately, I caught my parents on the rare day when they were sleeping in past 8:00, and I ended up waking them. They were quite amenable though, and soon my mom ran downstairs to find the recipe I was looking for and read off the proportions. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to find cornmeal in Italy though, so I also got the recipe for the straight flour dough and then let them go back to sleep, if possible by that point.

I then went to a local chain grocery store to pick up ingredients and was surprised to find they did not sell flour, let alone cornmeal. They had salt, sugar, and cake-mixes all in different parts of the store, but no flour. I returned to my apartment, dumbfounded and distraught about how I was to make any sort of dough without flour. I double-checked our Italian-English dictionary to find out exactly what the word for flour was in Italian (farina), and under my roommates’ advisement, ventured back out to another branch of the same chain grocery. Funny enough, I found flour in no time, and next to it was a type of cornmeal used for polenta. I purchased both, and set out to whip up some delicious dessert concoction.

As I had realized at the store, we did not have any measuring cups in our apartment, so I came close to buying some, only to find that, of course, nothing in Italy uses the English system of measuring which all of my proportions were in. Thus, I began to improvise in baking, which is generally leads to inconsistent results. I used a small espresso mug we had which I estimated was about a one cup measure, and I used by prior knowledge of the American system to eye-ball all of the measurements. When it came to cutting in butter, I again improvised with a fork, which took significantly longer than it would have with the proper tools. Still, everything seemed to be going alright. The next step was to roll out the dough, and after a thorough search of several stores, I was unable to find a rolling-pin, so I made-do with a half-opened bottle of cheap white wine. And to my surprise, it actually worked quite well. As I placed the two doughs into the refrigerator to cool, I was thoroughly satisfied by my improvised results, so I decided to go out and get some eggplant to make a batch of savory tarts as well.

It was my first time really cooking with eggplant, but I’ve been enjoying it so much here that I thought I’d give it a try. I cut it in half and tried cooking it by two methods to figure out which I liked better. One of them, I sliced and sautéed in a pan with olive oil, while I took the other half and stuck it in the oven on high heat with a batch of slow-cooked onions and garlic.

Everything was settled and ready to go, so I took a brief break and joined Adam and two of his friends who were heading over to the chocolate fair going on at the Piazza di Santa Croce over the weekend. It was unbelievable: tent after tent of chocolate vendors selling fruit smothered in chocolate, spicy chocolate, bitter chocolate, thick hot chocolate, truffles, and chocolate in just about any shape and form imaginable. At the front of the church there was also a marching band of sorts which played music that sounded somewhere in between period renaissance and American college marching band music as a background for a group of flag twirling dancers who regularly tossed their poles high into the windy air, catching them without fail. It was quite a show, and as the sun fell, we headed back to the apartment.

When it came time to making up the tarts, the dough had become much stickier. It was a little more difficult to work with than I’m used to, and after baking the bottom was a bit soft, so I threw down some more flour underneath the dough and let it bake a bit longer. In the end, it was a big hit, and the girls were thrilled that we’d brought more than just dessert because there were more people showing up than originally anticipated.

I can’t say that it was my best effort, but given the circumstances, it tasted quite good and went over quite well. The party was a nice conclusion to the weekend, and I had a particularly good time figuring out how to make an elegant dish in a difficult setting.

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