Monday, April 13, 2009

Vallucciole...senza alcuna colpa

Vallucciole, senza alcuna colpa. Without fault of their own.

It could have been a day just like today. April 13, 1944, early spring, blue skies, trees blooming, Good Friday. At Mulin di Bucchio three Nazis disguised as escaped American POW's were driving an unmarked car and and taking measurements for the logistics and maneuvers that would enable the Germans to prepare a line of defense against the growing number of partisans in the area and to break these partisan formations. The Gothic Line, ordered by Field Marshall Kesselring would have crossed Tuscany and Romagna in the Appenine Mountains. The Nazis believed the best way to ensure all available security was to transform the whole territory into "la terra bruciata", burnt earth. The plan was was to clean out all the villages, a mopping up or "rastrellamento" with such horrible ferocity there would be no resistance from the population.
That particular spring day they Nazis met up with some partisans who had come to the mill to stock up on flour. The partisans killed two of the Germans and the third escaped into the woods.The next day, at dawn, the tiny village of Vallucciole which sits across from the mill high up on the road was burnt to the ground in reprisal. Goering's S.S. troops came without warning and with the villagers still in bed, began systematically dragging people out of their homes, half naked, killing the women and children first using machine guns, clubs, knives, rifles. I talked to my neighbor Pasquita who was seventeen at the time and living here. She told me the babies were thrown against the wall. Everything was set on fire. The men were collected from house to house and made to carry the German munitions up to nearby Mt. Falterona. Each man was guarded by his own Nazi. There is one man who escaped and wrote a terrifying account of this march. When the mission up the mountain was finished the men were executed. From sunrise to sunset the massacre continued until at the end of the day one hundred and eight people were dead and Vallucciole was a smoldering village of ash and death.
Today most of the houses are rebuilt and have become summer homes. There is one house that has not been rebuilt which you can see in the slideshow. There is also a slide of the bread oven outside the home. I never see anybody when I go to Vallucciole. There is a man who built a house a few meters from the cemetery. He's from Stia and comes to his house to get out of town to the quiet. It is very quiet there except for a few friendly dogs that bark at Lucy in the car. The tiny cemetery tells this unforgettable story.It happened sixty five years ago on this day.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Sounds Like a Motorcycle, Tastes Like a Cake

It's called "il berlingozzo", a traditional Tuscan cake that dates back to the Renaissance. It would very likely show up on the table of Cosimo I (1389-1464). Now a little history. The Florentines loved sugar. In fact, the blackened teeth resulting from the overindulgence in sugar was actually seen as a sign of their affluence. Those that could afford it, that is. I've read that some would actually rub their teeth with some sort of black substance to give the illusion of wealth. They loved sugar so much that rather than waiting for dessert, they would put sugar in the pasta. So, the berlingozzo would show up on an antipasto table as sweet hors d'oeuvres, which was a popular start to a Renaissance meal.
Berlingozzo comes from a very old Tuscan dialect verb "berlingare", to enjoy. And the Florentines were such lovers of all things delicious they were called "i berlingatori'. The Florentines got this name as they ate and drank with abandon before assuming the abstemious practices of Lent. (I don't think anybody does this anymore.) This cake was traditionally eaten on Giovedi' Grasso" or Fat Thursday right before Carnevale. So somewhere along the way this wonderful little cake became known as "il berlingozzo".
Just like any other kind of food in Italy you'll find different spins on recipes from province to province. Or for that matter, from village to village. if I went over to Pasquita's right now she'd pull out her grandmother's recipe and there would be something unique about it. That's the fun of the whole Italian regional cooking experience. Near Pistoia, not too far from Florence, the cake might be flavored with "semi d'anice" or crushed fennel seeds. Nearby, in Prato it might be flavored with orange zest. Here in Florence it's flavored with lemon zest. I must admit though I've made the cake with a dash of almond extract when a lemon wasn't around and it was just fine.
This is a quickly put together cake, a one bowl cake. Get everything measured and then one, two three, it's finished.
It's very moist and has a lovely density that's great for "inzuppare", or dipping, dunking, in coffee, caffe l'latte, milk, even red wine.
When Peter's son comes to visit, I could have three or four dolci made for him, and he always goes for il berlingozzo.

2 whole eggs
2 egg yolks
1 cup sugar, about 217 grams
3 cups flour, about 410 grams
3 1/2 oz. butter, about 100 grams, melted
zest of one lemon
1 T of baking powder or 1 envelope of leivito per dolci
250 to 300 cl. of milk...about 1 1/2 cups or 12 oz. and a little more
pinch of salt.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees, 180 C.
Beat the eggs with the sugar until they become light yellow. I use a hand mixer for this and it's the only time I use it in the recipe. So you can throw the beaters in the sink if you want.
Add the flour a little at at a time , the melted butter, the lemon zest, salt, and stir well to combine everything. It takes some patience to get that flour mixed in.
Add the milk and keep beating. It will eventually come together. Sometimes I might add a tablespoon or more of milk to ease the batter a little.
Add the baking powder. Some directions call for sprinkling it through a strainer because you don't want any lumps. That's not a bad idea. Stir it into the mix but don't beat it. Just stir until you don't see it anymore. Make sure that's the last thing you do.
Have a buttered and floured cake pan ready to go. For some reason I always use a tube pan. I don't think it makes a difference.
Pour in the batter and bake for about 40 minutes. After the 40 minutes do the toothpick check in the center. Clean toothpick? Finished.
Now, I have a very quirky oven as you know. I set my timer for 25 minutes and start checking. The cake will rise and be golden but it will still need more time. The second I sense the fragrance change from bake to burn I need to turn my top burner element off or it will grill the poor thing. And then I switch to just cooking it from the bottom. But you've got ovens that aren't manufactured by Fisher-Price so you should be okay. I can get this cake made in 20 minutes or less. It's the cooking part for me that's tricky. This is a delightful cake and I can assure you anyone can make it successfully.
Put some berries over a slice and a dollop of whipped cream. Dunk into a glass of milk. You'll see what I mean.