The Food Maven Diary
Settled in Battipaglia
I know. It's about time I've written. I am now sitting in the kitchen of my friend Barbara Di Maio and Massimino Bellelli, Cecilia's son and daughter-in-law. It's a great kitchen, by the way, a big square room with a square island in the middle that has wooden cabinets trimmed in stainless steel underneath. The walls and upper cabinets are creamy white, and well, it's a great kitchen and I am very comfortable - always -- sitting and working at a kitchen table.
B and M live in Battipaglia, which is just south of Salerno, in the same grand Art Deco house (1935) as Cecilia and her older son, Ettore, and his wife, Veronica, and their two children, Gaetano and Luca. The house was built by Cecilia's father and it was one of the only buildings left standing after World War II, when Battipaglia was bombed by the Alles because it was a major railroad junction. It used to be a market town, the hub of this very rich agricultural area. Now it has been rebuilt, and very densely I have to say, although the Bellelli house is somewhat insulated from all this by a gated garden that surrounds it. And it is now divided into three full-floor apartments. Cecilia's has nearly all its original finishes and is full of all the Stuff (yes, with a capital S) that she collects. Barbara and Massimino, who are only married two years, totally renovated their floor and decorated it with a mix of comfortable modern furniture mixed with antiques. Ettore and Veronica's apartment is also modern, and filled with children's stuff. The boys are 10 and 8 years old. I tell you all this because I know you are curious.
I have spent the last two weeks photographing food and people and places with famous food photographer Alan Richardson. He is not only a total gent, but an artist. Truly. And, by the way, Alan has a best-selling book of his own in the stores right now. It's called "Hello, Cupcake." You've probably seen him on TV recently demonstrating his clever ideas for cupcake decorations. He has been all over the place. And the book has been immensely successful. It's been on the New York Time's best seller list now for something like four months.
Our trip was very intense. We needed to cover a lot of territory. We took the ferry from Naples to Catania (that's Sicily), then, after photographing in my hands-down favorite market, La Pescheria, we drove down to Siracusa, in the southeast corner of the island. We shot some wonderful food in Ortigia, the city's historic center, then drove north through Calabria and Basilicata. We also spent much time at Azienda Seliano, the Bellelli's agriturismo in Paestum, where I cooked with some help from my girlfriends in the kitchen, and Alan shot what publishers call "beauty shots," meaning close-ups of prepared food. We also took shots of all my friends, and quite a few strangers, in their kitchens, cooking or presenting their food.
After spending the last 12 years researching and the last two years recipe testing and writing what was supposed to be "The Big Book of Southern Italian Food and Wine," my publisher has decided to switch gears (don't ask) and I am now re-writing the entire book so that it is not going to be big after all. I figured before I get into the final stretch of reshaping this book, I'd better write you a little something. During the summer, I was so frantically trying to finish "The Big Book..." that you didn't hear a peep from me.
To all my Jewish friends, HAPPY NEW YEAR! SHANA TOVA!
I have a Cook at Seliano group coming on Oct. 12, and I am looking forward to that. I make sure to talk on the phone with everyone who comes and this round I know I have a particularly upbeat and, to use an Italian expression, simpatico group. I am also particularly excited about a special excursion we will take. We always go to Naples for a day, and on the way we stop in Torre Annunziata and visit Oplontis, the very grand villa of Poppea, the emperor Nero's "wonton wife," as she is called. (When she became pregnant with another man's baby, he kicked her to death.) It's a fabulous ruin, with frescos and mosaic floors still in tact. But on our other excursion day we are going to have lunch in a more contemporary villa in Ravello. It was the home of Ernestine, who some of you may be familiar with. She was an American artist and designer who was the mistress of a very rich Italian industrialist who made his fortune in utilitarian ceramics - everything from floor and wall tiles to toilets and other plumbing fixtures, as I understand it. When they got together, he started manufacturing her designs for dinnerware and decorative ceramics. These were extremely popular in both the States and Europe, mainly in the 1950s. I often see her work being sold on ebay.
A week or so after the industrialist died, Ernestine committed suicide. She was very close with her boyfriend's daughter, Lola, and she left the villa to her. Lola, now in her early 70s, married well (as they say), but her husband, smart about money of course, not long ago decided that the house was too much of financial drain and, in any case, sat empty most of the time. They live in Rome and also have a home up north. As Lola cannot part with this house, and as she loves to cook, she is now, to get her husband off her back, using the house to host lunches and dinners - for a price, of course. Cecilia says she is a wonderful cook, and that the house is spectacular. I can't wait. (I can't tell you the menu, yet, we are waiting for Lola to make some suggestions.)
As I write, Barbara is puttering around behind me, making dinner. We are going to eat fish and vegetables, because we are trying to be very good, but I guarantee you there will be something for dessert. B's mother, the adorable Antonella, is a professional pastry chef (retired) and I spied some chocolate-filled pastries on the counter. I have to tell you, Barbara does not need to diet. She is quite slim. No, I take that back. SHE HAS A GREAT BODY! But before she married Massimino, like every bride you have ever known, she lost weight. When, after a year, she was still maintaining, I decided I should go on "the Barbara diet." The idea was I was going to eat only what Barbara ate. That night she had vegetable soup for dinner, with just a skimming of olive oil on the otherwise fat-free soup. I thought this is a pretty good way to go. No deprivation here. But the next morning, I found her in the kitchen at Seliano eating brioche and Nutella for breakfast. That was the end of the Barbara diet for me.
Dinner is almost ready, so I will end here. I have to move the computer so I can set the table. But before I go, let me offer you a recipe apropos of the Jewish New Year, as well as the fall apple season, and, I guess, the upcoming Sukkouth celebration. It's from "Arthur Schwartz's Jewish Home Cooking: Yiddish Recipes Revisted," my latest book. This is truly one of my favorite cakes, and I promise, even though it is made with oil so that it can be served with a kosher meat meal, you don't have to be Jewish to enjoy it.
PAREVE APPLE-WALNUT CAKE
Makes 1 10-inch tube cake
Covered loosely with foil, this is a very moist cake that will keep for a week at room temperature. If the outside dries out slightly, that's all the better. The crusty outside is delicious. (If you cover the cake with plastic, or put it under a cake dome, the crust with soften.) An old-fashioned removable bottom aluminum tube pan promotes a good crust, and the cake will un-mold with its crustiest side up. If you don't have this old-fashioned pan, a bundt pan produces a more decorative shape, but the crusty top becomes the bottom when the cake is unmolded. It's your choice. Either type pan of pan is fine, as long as it holds 12 cups. Please note, however, that if you use a dark metal pan, especially a heavy dark metal bundt pan, the cake will probably need the full baking time. Or, if you please, decrease the temperture to 350 degrees. Dark metal, whether a cake pan or roasting pan, absorbs and retains heat more than light-colored metal. In any case, you should always check a cake before a recipe says it will be done. Oven temperatures can vary, too. I truly don't know how to advise you if you use a convection oven, although I can guarantee the following temperature and timing will not be correct. You'll probably need to decrease both.
Parve margarine for greasing the pan (or butter if you are not kosher)
3 cups flour (measured by spooning the flour into the measuring cup and leveling it off)
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons cinnamon
2 cups sugar, plus 5 tablespoons
4 to 5 cups peeled apples cut into roughly 1-inch pieces (the number of apples depends on their size)
1 cup vegetable oil
¼ cup orange or apple juice
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped
Confectioners' sugar (optional)
Grease a 12- cup (10-inch) tube pan or bundt pan with margarine. If using a decorative bundt pan, make sure to get the butter into all the crevices, and grease the whole pan heavily.
Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
In a mixing bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, and salt. Stir to blend. Set aside.
In a small bowl or cup, combine the cinnamon and 5 tablespoons of sugar. Stir to blend. Set aside.
Peel, core, and cut the apples. Place in a mixing bowl and toss with the cinnamon sugar. Set aside.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, using the paddle attachment, beat the eggs and 2 cups of sugar together on medium speed until the mixture is light yellow and thick, about 1 minute. Slowly pour in the oil and continue beating another few seconds. Beat in the orange or apple juice and vanilla.
Stop the machine. Add the flour mixture all at once. Stir on lowest speed just until the flour is thoroughly blended in. Do not over mix.
By hand, stir in the apples and walnuts.
Pour the batter evenly into the prepared tube or bundt pan.
Bake for 1½ hours. It should be well browned and separating from the sides of the pan.
Place the cake on a rack and let it cool in the pan for 15 to 20 minutes. Turn the cake out onto the rack and cool to room temperature before slicing. You may want to dust the top of the cake with confectioners' sugar. Use a serrated blade knife for slicing.