Thanksgiving Cornmeal Cake from the Veneto

Torta di Polenta (Corn Meal Cake)

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It was eight years ago, just a few months after moving to the City, that I experienced my first Manhattan Thanksgiving: ironically, I ended up celebrating the quintessential American holiday at an Italian friend’s home. Daniela had arrived in New York one year before me, and was so smitten with it that she scored higher on the Time Out Magazine test “Are You a Real NewYorker?” than all our American friends. It was her idea to throw an Italian-style Thanksgiving dinner, incorporating the various traditional foods of the holiday into Italian recipes. Given that she is a superb cook, carrying the extraordinary legacy of three different Jewish Italian culinary styles – the Piedmontese, the Venetian and the Ferrarese -  it’s no surprise that the meal was an absolute masterpiece. I had the impression that for the American guests, eating these Italian delicacies instead of the classic turkey with cranberry sauce also felt a little naughty! While I can’t replicate the special atmosphere of that night, after Daniela moved to Israel I adopted her tradition of remembering the Pilgrims with the regional dishes from my own country.

I’m used to cooking around symbolic foods for Passover and Rosh haShana: turkey and pumpkin, the most recognizable Thanksgiving ingredients, also appear on my Rosh HaShana table, and again on Sukkot. The connection with Sukkot runs even deeper, as both holidays are harvest festivals: some historians have gone so far as to trace the roots of Thanksgiving in Sukkot, based on encounters the Pilgrims supposedly had with Sephardic Jews in Holland before they left for the Americas.

But whether or not this story is true, Jews celebrate Thanksgiving Day with an intensity usually reserved to our most sacred holidays: it’s easy for us to empathize with the pilgrims, who had to flee religious discrimination and persecution and travel across an ocean to find freedom – and with their sweat and faith, fought against illness and scarcity, finally turning America’s wilderness into their “Promised Land”.

While the turkey and pumpkin are symbols of bounty, one food on the table is meant to remind us of the harsh winter before the first harvest, when the pilgrims barely had enough to eat. It’s the corn, as it is said that at one point there was so little food that each person was given only five kernels of corn per day. Corn bears a similar type of double-symbolism in Italian history: when it found its way to Italy from the Americas, it immediately spread through the North, and landowners started reaping huge profits by feeding their workers only maize polenta – creamy, delicious and filling, but so poor of vitamins and protein that it caused an epidemic of Pellagra, the same deficiency disease that spread in the American South during the great Depression, leading to deterioration and death. Somehow, native Americans had avoided it because they added wood ashes and lime to cornmeal, correcting its nutritional imbalance.

Cranberries can also be read as a symbol of suffering: of course we combine them with a lot of sugar to make them palatable, but their nature is extremely sour. This reminds me of the symbolism of sweet and sour dishes in Jewish Italian Cuisine, in which the sugar or honey represent the need to appreciate our present and future, while the vinegar or lemon keeps us rooted in our people’s past suffering.

While giving thanks for the plentiful new crop, and the many blessings that we enjoy each year, we also remember those who didn’t make it through that terrible first winter. 
Have a meaningful Thanksgiving!

Ingredients

  • 1 scant cup (150 gr) cornmeal maize (for polenta) or 2 cups cooked polenta (cooked dense, not liquidy)
  • 3 tbsps grappa or brandy
  • 1/3 cup dried cranberries (or raisins)
  • 1/2 to 2/3 cup candied fruit (mix of orange and lemon or citron) (optional)
  • 1/4 cup pine nuts
  • 1 organic lemon
  • a pinch of salt
  • 1/3 cup of sugar (about 85 gr)
  • 1 scant cup flour (about 100 gr)
  • 1 1/2 tbsp baking powder (10 gr)
  • 1/4 cup oil (mild olive oil , vegetable oil or coconut oil)
  • 2 eggs

Preheat the oven to 400 F. Prepare the polenta with one scant cup of maize according to instructions on the package, using only about 1 1/4 cup boiling water (traditional polenta tastes better than instant, and you can make it quickly using a pressure cooker… however, instant is OK! Beretta makes a nice product). The polenta has to be on the thick side. 
When cooked, pour it over a large cutting board or platter in a wide and low heap and allow it to cool (feel free to pop it into the fridge).
 Plump the cranberries or raisins in the grappa or brandy. Dice the candied fruit very small. Discard the film that has formed over the polenta. Cut the polenta into pieces and place it into a food processor. Process it with the eggs, salt, sugar, oil, sifted flour with baking powder; add the raisins in their liqueur, the candied fruit, pine nuts, and the lemon zest and mix well. If the batter is so thick that it’s hard to pour into the pan, you can add just a couple of spoonsfuls of water or non-dairy milk.
Grease a 9″ springform pan and dust it with corn meal. If you have parchment, you should line the bottom of the pan before greasing it: this type of batter is very sticky. Pour the mix into it and bake in a pre-heated 400 F oven for about 15 minutes until it forms a golden crust, then lower the heat to 350 and bake for another 30-45 minutes (the cake should bake for 45-60 minutes total). Allow to cool before turning out. Serve warm, sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar.

Lemon and Lavander Tart

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Lemon Lavander Tart by DinnerInVenice

“Nothing is more memorable than a smell. One scent can be unexpected, momentary and fleeting, yet conjure up a childhood summer beside a lake in the mountains; another, a moonlit beach; a third, a family dinner of pot roast and sweet potatoes during a myrtle-mad August in a Midwestern town” (Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses).

One of my first olfactory memories features a lemon lavender crostata, baked by my grandmother on a summer afternoon about four decades ago.

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When we think of lavender fields, most of us conjure up images of Provence: maybe because they were often depicted by French impressionists. However, this plant (a member of the same family of savory herbs which also includes sage, thyme, and oregano) is cultivated all over the world, from England to Brazil, from Russia to Japan and new Zealand – and of course, Italy.

My grandmother lived in Pistoia, a town about 30 minutes North-West of Florence and just over one hour drive from the Chianti region, with its stunning landscapes of rolling hills lined with cypress trees, vineyards alternating with olive groves and (surprise!) lavender fields, in a patchwork of incomparable natural beauty. That’s exactly where my parents and I picked our flowers, and finally (after a generous tip to the farmer) we were allowed to leave with a large bundle.

Unfortunately, I also came back with a giant bee sting that was promptly treated by the local pediatrician, Dottor Federico: lush lavender shrubs are in fact always humming with fuzzy bees, and the product of this romantic relationship is the most elegant of all honeys.

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My grandmother was never a remarkable  cook or baker, but somehow this particular tart, made using her next-door neighbor’s recipe, and almonds and lemons from her own orchard, came out so delectable that it was physically gone in five minutes – and that its exquisite memory lingered on for more than forty years. More than a memory, I should call it my summer obsession: every time I have been able to get my hands on dried lavender, I have made something sweet with this combo – from cookies to gelato, from trifle to frozen lemonade.

This year, after purchasing a bundle of over-priced flowers at L’Occitane, it’s lavender crostata time again!

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Ingredients:

  • 1 disc puff pastry or short pastry, home made or purchased
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 3/4 cup (heaped) sugar
  • 1/4 cup (heaped) potato starch
  • 2 1/4 cups 2 % milk
  • juice of 2 small lemons, or 1 large lemon
  • zest of 1 organic lemon
  • 2 teaspoons dried lavender

Grease a springform pan (about 9″ to 9 1/2″) and line the bottom with parchment. Preheat your oven to 400 degrees if using puff pastry, 360 if using short pastry.

Roll out pastry and transfer pastry to the prepared springform pan, trimming edges using a paring knife

Prepare the custard: beat the egg yolks with the sugar until foamy. Add the lemon zest and juice.

Dissolve the potato starch into the warm milk, adding little milk at a time. Once combined, add it to the egg mix. Cook in a Bain Marie over low heat, whisking frequently, until the custard thickens. Add 1 teaspoon dried lavender blossoms/petals to the custard.
Pour the custard into the crust, and sprinkle a little more lavender on top. Bake at  400 (for puff) or 360 (for pastry dough) for 30 to 45 minutes or until the crust is golden. You can also use mini-pans and make individual size tartelettes.

Savory Beet Pie with Ricotta, Radicchio and Leeks

Beet Radicchio Leek and  Ricotta Pie
Beet Radicchio Leek and  Ricotta Pie

Beet Radicchio Leek and Ricotta Pie

Beets are native to the Mediterranean, but for a very long time people ate only their leaves, while the root was used in medicine to treat a variety of ailments. It was only in 19th century France that the beet’s culinary potential was discovered, while at the same time the Germans proved that it could produce sugar , making it an easy local alternative to the tropical sugar cane.

Beets are in season from June through October , but they are easy to find throughout the year because, like other root vegetables, they store well. Their flavor is deep, sweet, hearty and rich, making them ideal for cold-weather recipes like this one. Cooking the beets whole is the best way to retain most of their flavor and nutritive value. In particular, roasting intensifies the flavor, and makes the peels easy to remove. Just cut off any greens, (you can cook them and eat them separately), scrub the beets clean, place them on a large piece of aluminum foil, fold and close the foil,  and bake in a preheated oven at 375 F for 25 minutes to 1 hour (depending on the size).

Beet radicchio Leek and Ricotta Tart

Savory Beet Pie with Ricotta, Radicchio and Leeks

Ingredients

  • One puff pastry or brisee' pastry sheet, home-made or frozen
  • 1/2 pound whole milk ricotta (it's naturally very low-fat, don't get the fat-free type, the texture is funny)
  • 1 large beet, baked (you can also use the pre-cooked kind but they are less flavorful)
  • 2 small leeks, cleaned and sliced very thin
  • 1 head of red radicchio, sliced thin
  • 1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
  • 1 small or medium egg
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Directions

Bake the beet till soft . In the meantime, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil, add the leeks and cook the leeks for about 5 minutes.

Set 1/2 of the leeks aside, and add the radicchio to the pan.

Cook most of the radicchio (save a little for decorating) with the remaining leeks for about 10 minutes, adding 1/4 cup of red wine if it's sticking to the bottom (or drizzle with little balsamic vinegar).

Process the cooked beet with 1/2 the cooked leeks, the ricotta, egg, cooked radicchio, salt and pepper to taste, and one tablespoon olive oil.

Pre-heat your oven to 360 F; grease a baking pan or line it with parchment; roll out the pastry, cut it in a circle about 1.5" wider than the pan and place it in the pan.

Fill the pastry with the mix of ricotta and vegetables, and add the remaining cooked leek on top. Fold the edges over, and bake for 20 to 30 minutes or until golden.

Before serving decorate the top with the remaining radicchio.

* For an even richer flavor you can add 2 tablespoons of grated parmigiano to there filling.

http://dinnerinvenice.com/2011/06/05/savory-beet-pie-with-ricotta-radicchio-and-leeks/