There are no “foodies” in Italy–there’s simply food. As I quickly learned during my week-long stay in Putignano, food is a way of life, not simply a packaged bar of high fructose corn syrup that you snatch while dashing out the door for work. While food has always been a central part of my Chinese family and culture–think lazy Susan’s groaning under the weight of 15 or 20 dishes, chopstick wars over the last piece of fried tofu, literal battles between relatives over who is going to pay the bill–being in Italy felt like landing on an entirely different food planet altogether: one made of family friends, 10 o’clock dinners, and lots–I mean LOTS–of cheese.
Aside from enjoying homemade meals with Alessio’s family, I was invited to taste (quite literally) a whole sampling platter of Italian dining experiences throughout the week. One of my favorite meals happened on my second night in Putignano, when we drove over to the countryside home of one of their family friends for a pizza party. No, not a pizza party of 90’s Chuck E. Cheese glory–we’re talking 2 kilos of homemade pizza dough, dozens of fresh meats and vegetables, authentic brick oven right on the patio, the whole shebang. Better yet, we went through something like six courses (a crust “test run,” individual pizzas, dessert pizza with Nutella, gelato, fruit, and cake), so that by the end of the night I thought my stomach was going to burst straight through the too-snug button on my jeans. Seated along a long table that seated all 15 or 16 of us, everyone seemed content to sit and eat and chat as the early evening faded into evening proper, then late night. The pace of Italian life during the summer offers an incredible contrast to the hustle & bustle of American day-to-day, and as someone who spends half of her solo meals typing away at the computer, it was amazing to be granted this glimpse into a truly mindful culture of eating.
Of course, we also had our fair share of Italian desserts, which were totally my speed (especially the gelato–always the gelato). Tiramisu, rummy orange-infused ladyfingers, coffee panna cotta, special almond paste cookies that they make only in Putignano: all of these were sweets that I wanted to cram home into my suitcase and share with everyone at home! When I asked if there was a good place from which I could buy the almond paste cookies, Alessio’s lovely dad ended up buying me a fresh package as my going-away gift, which ended up assuaging my post-Europe trip cravings for a good week. Alas, I had to leave the gelato behind–but ’till next time!
Rather than try and recreate any of the desserts that I tried while I was in Italy, I decided it would be better (i.e. less crushing to my ego) to try and make something completely new, but inspired by the flavors of Italy. Since we had products made with fresh cheese every day there, I decided to buy a tub of fresh ricotta cheese and make these Lemon Ricotta Cookies with Lemon Cream Cheese Frosting. They are SO. UNIQUE. I have never had a cookie quite like them before, and they resemble pillowy zesty muffin tops than anything else (those of you who love to peel the tops of muffins off and leave the bottoms for later…I’m looking at you!). The ricotta makes them completely fluffy without giving them a cakey texture, and the cookies are so easy to whip together that no extra effort is needed for these lemony gems. The lemon cream cheese frosting is a MUST for these, too: the tangy, zesty flavor perfectly offsets the understated fluffiness of the cookies, making them more like the top of a beautiful cupcake than anything else.
You can take the girl out of Italy, but you can’t take the Italy out of the girl–and you certainly can’t take Italian food away from this gal, either Happy baking!
What role does food play in your daily life?