They say that Christmas brings, on top of tonnes of food, a pacifying power, and this year in particular I couldn’t agree more with it. It may be that, with age, one has less energies to spend living in conflict, or perhaps there is a stronger awareness that free time should only be spent in what we find salvific, positive and satisfactory.
2016 has demanded a lot of effort and commitment, for the most part channelled into what is represented by Duty. Pleasure, limited to small cut-outs, daily or seasonal, has been sought with difficulty and great pathos, and sometimes I could not enjoy it at all. It is difficult to clarify this concept but let’s say, if I dare to compare…what use can a really expensive leather armchair be for someone who doesn’t have food or a roof over his head?
Don’t worry, I still have a few panettoni in the cupboard, and not just those. I did say I was daring to compare.
I’ll explain better.
During Christmas I made peace with New York, “Concrete jungle where dreams are made of, noise is always loud, there are sirens all around and the streets are mean…and with an Empire State of Mind”, to tell it exactly like Alicia Keys recorded it.
Immersed in the calm of my kitchen, a cup of herbal tea in my hands, the memories of those days at the end of September, bright and fresh, of an autumn about to begin, appear to me almost warm and familiar.
I am talking like Laura in “Little house on the prairie” but I am only looking for the right words to say that the trip to New York has been a beautiful medal on the uniform, even though I never knew the rules of the game, or even the battlefield.
The nomination to finalist in the category Best Baking and Sweets of the American food magazine Saveur was unexpected, sudden and sometimes inexplicable. Like spending a bit of change in a lottery ticket and winning everything – ok maybe not everything, but still something closer to “too much”, compared to what you believe you deserve.
Received via email, during a hot summer night, with the strong doubt it may be spam. I was being informed I had to take a flight to participate to the annual Saveur Blog Awards 2016, as a finalist, and I was being promised a convention of bloggers from all over the world, three informative and entertaining days, various workshops, a reception, a gala night and plenty of good food. And that was all, basically.
And so I left, struggling to detach myself from asphyxiating working days, for the Big Apple, which can be really anything except one of those apples I eat as my afternoon snack. I’d rather define it as a “brown stock” of cultures, lights, smells, noises, colours, shapes, iron and glass.
L’Ultima Fetta was born only few months beforehand: what was I doing, sitting at the same table with bloggers with 100k followers in Instagram, and on top of that in a luxury penthouse in Manhattan? I honestly believe that this major question mark has been definitely less understandable than my English. A sort of Fantozzi cloud that lasted three days.
Anyway, whatever I was promised was actually there, and I would never have imagined it from the brief few lines I got as an invite. And the images, the places, the flavours, the faces, the accents are still bouncing in my head and are following each other with a frenzy that was the common denominator of those three days. I see Kathy’s colours, I remember Julian’s kindness, Lauren’s support, the jokes on the imminent and unusual political elections with Jack.
I think about how petrified I was on the evening of the reception, when I walked in the door of the suite of the William Vale Hotel in Williamsburg, and the suffocating astonishment I felt in the balcony, in front of all the shades of a postcard Manhattan.
I relive with a certain discomfort the early rise (hardly compatible with the jet lag) I had on Tuesday, the main day of the event: the smell of the smoky, wet roads at 7 am, the noise of the subway that would bring me from Manhattan to Brooklyn for the workshop on the Hog (yes, the animal…and what a pleasure!) in Fleishers’s Craft Kitchen, the sleepy eyes of a girl whose sweatshirt read “Don’t wake me up”, the silent, polite queue of my colleagues at the breakfast counter, everyone with an empty plate in their hands.
Yes, exactly, just like at Home.
At 10 am that Tuesday morning, perched on a stool, a hot cup of tea in my hands and staring at a half hog laying on the counter, I was all ears: a butcher, who looked more like Dexter Morgan than Dario Cecchini, was explaining “…nothing is wasted in a pig, but while we Americans prepare mainly spare ribs and pancetta, in Italy they make zamponi, musetti, porchetta, ham, coppe, salami…”.
Yes, We are not just the ones of the weird queues.
After the tea, it was the turn of battered steaks, sautéed liver and grilled pancetta slices.
Hugs and kisses, see you, some dried meat souvenir and off you go, briskly walking towards lunch, which was going to be served within an hour in Saveur kitchens, at the heart of Manhattan. The day had become hot, almost as if in June, the roads of Midtown crowded. The nose up in the air, a bit not to miss anything, a bit to help swallowing the pork.
Saveur’s kitchens, at the top floors of a skyscraper near the 5th Avenue and within walking distance to the Empire State Building, were filled with light and swarming with waiters and cooks. A feast for the eyes and for the palate.
Before lunch, a taste of Argentinian wines, led by the charismatic Brand Ambassador Marika Vida: energy and attitude in spades. Smart and faultless, she mesmerized the audience for 45 minutes. If only you dared looking at the bread basket, you risked being asked “I’d like to know how this wine makes you feel”, yes, just like that, not a simply “te gusta?” in front of a hundred people.
The farewell was worth of a Red Carpet, and was followed by delicacies: a warm goat cheese salad and Malbec braised short rib.
…Excuse me, what about the hog?
And then the explosive final: a parade of white ceramic cake stand populated by mini desserts. Standing ovation at first sight for a mini white chocolate panna cotta with Gingerbread and pomegranate, a pumpkin cheesecake, a dark chocolate cake and mini amarena cherries tartlets.
…how many did you eat?
And so, with a weary body but with a happy palate, I spent the remaining of the afternoon wandering around the vast Kitchen, with a view on the skyscrapers, observing how the editorial staff creates, tests and photographs the recipes that will be published in the magazine… something really close to my dream job.
It was getting late in the afternoon and I didn’t have many words left to say, eyes to open wide, fingers to lick, I was dazed and foggy and still incapable to believe how my Italian routine could be broken in such an unpredictable and emotionally shocking way. I could not imagine what was coming next.
A long walk from Midtown to East Village, a quick shower, few minutes to doll up and I was ready for the big night.
Who knows me knows that, when I play, I play for fun but also to win and, while they may find this hard to believe, this isn’t due to the need to be the best, but it’s rather a consequence of the desire to give 100%. The difference if subtle but it’s there. The thing is, since the first day I couldn’t see all this as a competition. I had already won a view on a new world, the opportunity to look inside it and understand it.
These were my thoughts while I was waiting in a corner of Tompkins Square Park for the Uber that would bring me back to Williamsburg.
During the journey a smiling driver cover me with questions about what I do, where I come from, what I like of NY and what I am going to see in the upcoming days: thinking about not so much what to answer, but rather how to answer it, is beginning to get more and more tiresome. His shining white teeth, visible on the mirror, and his “cool”, repeated almost in a singing tone, spread happiness and positivity, and eventually I realise that the loneliness and the emotional charge are slowly dissipating.
A quick elevator ride to reach the WestLight bar on the 22nd floor of the William Vale hotel, a long corridor in dim light, and then that was it, the time for words was gone: the heart shattered in a thousand pieces, the mouth wide open and the eyes filled with images that couldn’t be captured with a thousand pictures. An open-air space with 180 degrees view on the five districts wrapped by the magic dusk light and… people, smiles, cheers, congratulations, hugs.
For me the American dream had been well and truly reached and lived, even before the winners’ announcement: the curtain could fall at that precise moment. In that wind-swept balcony, wrapped by warm lights, I felt small, lucky, weak, important, lonely and satisfied, all at the same time.
With such a mix of emotions in my head and in my belly, I could not sleep for several days afterwards.
Only now, thousands of km away and months later, I think about New York, its contrasts, Alicia Keys’ words, the hog, and the amarena cherries which are not in season.
These mini tartlets with redcurrants, pâte sucrée beurrée and almond crumble were born to remember all of this.
1. You can prepare the pâte sucrée beurrée up to a few days beforehand, keeping it in the freezer. Move it from the freezer to the fridge the night before, then proceed as indicated in the recipe. Any leftovers can be used for a different recipe.
2. The crumble can also be made ahead, it’ll take only a few seconds. Pour the crumbs in a bag and store in the freezer. Shortly before placing the tartlets into the oven, take the bag out of the freezer and pour the crumbs directly onto the tartlets. If, while making the crumble, you’ve passed the “crumbs” stage, don’t despair. Knead until you get a ball that you will keep refrigerated inside a freezer bag. Before baking, take the dough a piece at a time and press it against a large-meshed sieve or a grater with large holes; in this way you’ll obtain crumbs that you can use to complete the tartlets.
3. You can use cubed apples or pears instead of redcurrants; in this case however you’ll need to cook them in the pan for longer, so that the water can evaporate.
Food machine with flat beater, or food processor with dough blade
14 molds for mini tartlets or mini muffins, 5 cm diameter and approx. 1.5 cm high (this is perfect)
Round cutter 6 cm diameter (I bought this kit, it is usefull in many occasions)
INGREDIENTS & PREPARATION
For the pâte sucrée beurrée shells
(from a recipe by P. Hermé)
(you’ll need approx. 200 g for 14 mini tartlets – you can freeze the leftover dough)
150 g butter at room temperature
95 g powdered sugar, sifted
30 g almond flour
2 pinches fleur de sel (Guérande o Maldon)
¼ pulp of a vanilla bean
50 g egg (1 medium)
250 g all purpose flour, sifted
Cut the butter into cubes and soften it in the food machine using the flat beater (or in the food processor with a dough blade).
Add, in this order: powdered sugar, ground almonds, fleur de sel, pulp of vanilla bean, and finally the flour. Continue blitzing until combined into a ball.
Divide the dough into three parts of 200 g each and wrap with cling film. Place one part in the fridge and the remaining two in the freezer for other recipes.
Let the dough set in the fridge for about 4 hours, then roll it out between two sheets of baking paper, lightly floured. Cut discs of 6 cm diameter and place them in the tartlets tins (the molds must be lightly greased with butter beforehand).
Leave in the fridge to chill for about 30 minutes.
For the redcurrant filling
125 g redcurrants
Half egg yolk
8 g cornflour
30 g superfine sugar
a pinch of cinnamon
a pinch of ground vanilla powder
Mix the redcurrants with the spices and the sugar in a pan and cook for a few minutes. In a bowl, mix the egg and the cornflour. Set aside at room temperature.
For the almond crumble
25 g almond flour
25 g all purpose flour
25 g cold butter, cut into small pieces (same size)
25 g cane sugar
Pour all ingredients, except the butter, in the food machine (or in the food processor).
Using the flat beater attachment (or the dough blade), blitz for a few seconds until combined, then add the cubed butter and pulse at high speed until you obtain large crumbs.
Stop the machine and pour the crumble over a tray, lined with baking paper; keep it in the fridge until you’re ready to use it.
Composition of the redcurrant mini pies
Preheat the oven to 170° C in fan-assisted mode.
Remove the molds from the fridge, and prick the base lightly with a fork. Pour a teaspoon of redcurrant filling in each tin and finish with a generous amount of crumble, until the filling is fully covered.
Cook the redcurrants mini pies for 15/20 minutes or until golden.