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TAORMINA, SICILY AND CANNOLI

Sicily is such a beautiful place with deep blue seas and fleecy clouds The surf pounds against the beaches, and the mainland of Italy is just across the Straits. The island traces its history back to Greek times when Syracuse was one of the great city states. Since then it has had a tumultuous history as its own country  as well as under the dominance of many other countries and empires including the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Turks, Arabs, and Italy.

That rich history has produced amazing archeology, architecture, food, and customs. The beautiful sunlight has produced a sunny population that seems to take everything in stride.

In the USA, many think of Sicily as the home of the Godfather. That stereotype annoys the locals. At the same time, they often feel obliged to mention it – mostly so they can dispel the myth.

Messina is the port city at the straits, and it is filled with beautiful old buildings and famous churches. Undoubtedly, one could spend days exploring, but the highlight of our trip was a drive along the coast and up a narrow winding road to the town of Taormina. The port is beautiful. with the Stele of the Madonna greeting and saying farewell to vessels as well as wishing a blessing for the city and for all sailors. The mainland of Italy is just across the Strait of Messala which is 1.9 miles across at its closest point and 3.2 miles from Messala to the mainland. Plans to build the world’s longest sing-span suspension bridge are well along.

Taormina has been a tourist destination since Grecian times. The town looks down on the coastline far below, and in the distance, clouds play around the summit of Mount Etna. The air is clear and sunny, and the town streets are lined with interesting shops, ancient palaces, and vendors of all kinds.

One of the required visits is the Greek amphitheater on a hill overlooking the town. The walk is steep but not very long. It is well worth it. The ruin is very well-preserved, and the views from its upper heights are spectacular. It is impossible to visit without thinking of the countless people who have been here before you.

After the visit, the walk back down the hill leaves most tourists either hungry, thirsty, or both. There are plenty of vendors in little stalls to accommodate, and the choices seem limitless, ranging from soft drinks to pasta.

Among the most popular items for sale are the cannoli. There are different sizes and different flavors, and they make great treats to enjoy on the stroll back to the center of the town. The recipe that follows is my take on the pistachio cannoli that we bought on our stroll down the hillside. To make your own, you will need some special aluminum cannoli molds for shaping the shells. Molds should be easily available at a well-stocked kitchen store. A 4 inch cutter is also handy. You may find a nest of cutters of different sizes another useful purchase.

 

RECIPES

Shells

Ingredients

  • ¾ cup all-purpose flour
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon sugar
  • ½ teaspoon cocoa
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • 3 tablespoons limoncello or other citrus-flavored liqueur
  • 2 teaspoons madeira
  • 1 egg white whipped lightly until it is slightly foamy

Method

  • In a medium bowl, combine the flour, cinnamon, sugar, and cocoa.
  • Cut in the butter with a pastry blender so that the mixture resembles coarse meal
  • Add the liqueur and wine and combine with a fork until the mixture comes together as a firm ball
  • Wrap the ball of dough with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes or more.
  • Divide the dough in half, and roll out each half on a lightly floured surface to about 1/16th inch thick and large enough to cut out 4 4 inch circles using a cookie cutter or a cardboard circle as a template.
  • Using a rolling-pin, roll each circle into an oval.
  • Wrap each oval around a cannolo mold, long side parallel to the mold. Seal the seam with a dab of the egg white.
  • Fry each cannolo shell  in a heavy pan containing about 2 inches of canola oil and pre-heated to 375°F, turning until the shell is well browned and crisp.
  • Transfer to a pad of paper towels to let cool enough until you can easily remove the mold without burning your fingers.
  • Continue to fry the shaped shells until they are all fried. Set in a dry place ready for filling.

Filling

Ingredients

  • 8 ounces fresh ricotta
  • ¼ cup baker’s sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/3 cup miniature chocolate chips + more to sprinkle on the filled cannoli
  • ¼ cup ground unsalted pistachio nuts + more for dusting the fille cannoli

Method

  • In a medium bowl, combine all of the ingredients, mixing well.
  • Transfer to quart-size zippered plastic bag and chill in the refrigerator until you are ready to fill the shells
  • When you are ready,  cut a ¼ inch corner off the plastic bag so that it can be used as a pastry bag
  • Fill both ends of each cannolo. Dust with ground pistachios and sprinkle a few chocolate chips on each end
  • Serve immediately so the cannoli don’t get soggy.

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THE PARTHENON AND BAKLAVA

The Acropolis in Athens must certainly be on most people’s list of places they want to visit. It has been on my list since grade school, so it was a thrill to go there during our recent cruise. At the time of our visit, Athens was a worrisome place. The city is a teeming metropolis of more than three million people and there were demonstrations outside our hotel on Syntagma  Square (also called  Parliament Square) which caused the management to lower metal screens to protect the windows. The changing of the guard in front of the Parliament building went on schedule , but we had to walk past a cordon of police buses and armed military to get to our hotel.

Visiting the Acropolis was as if none of this was happening.  We got off our tour bus across from the entrance and began the long walk up the paths cut into the steep, rocky base of hill. Even though we were “off-season”, there were thousands of other tourists making the same pilgrimage, some racing up the steep stairs while others like me took it more slowly. Marble steps and paths were polished smooth, and one could only reflect on the thousands of years and millions of footprints that produced the patina. Even at that, there were flowers pushing up through the cracks.

As we climbed higher and higher, we could see some of the great landmarks. First was the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. The ruins of this enormous theater, built in the second century are set against the Athens skyline. At one time this was one of the largest covered theaters in the world. Now it is an open air setting where Athens frequently stages modern musical and theatrical productions.

Beyond was a wonderful view of the Olympieion, an enormous temple to Zeus begun in the sixth century BCE but not completed until the reign of the Roman Emperor Hadrian more than 600 years later. Only a few columns remain standing, but it is clear how huge it once was.

We reached the steps of the Propylaea. This served as the ancient entrance to the complex on the Acropolis. Apparently the purpose of the structure was to serve as a barrier to individuals who were not qualified to visit the holy sites.

Off to the left we saw the Temple of Athena Nike with its beautiful columns and lovely symmetry.

Then the centerpiece of the Acropolis: the Parthenon. Construction equipment, scaffolds, and cranes were all over the place obscuring views that were not already obscured by tourists. Even at that, the building is an impressive sight and the ruins are beautiful. The building has been much abused over the centuries. The famous statuary of the friezes was taken by the Scottish Lord Elgin and now resides in the British Museum.  The building has been a Christian church, a Muslim mosque, and a Turkish munitions warehouse at which time it was it was destroyed by the Venetians. It is truly amazing that such a lovely ruin has survived so much abuse and neglect.

The Erechtheion sits off to the side with its famous Porch of the Caryatids. The pillars supporting the roof of the porch are marble maidens – both sculptural and engineering marvels in that their thin necks provide support for the heavy marble roof. Unfortunately, Lord Elgin  took one of the maidens for his estate, and one was seriously damaged, but the others have been moved to the Museum of the Acropolis. Still the replicas capture the marvel of the originals.

Too soon our visit to the Acropolis ended and we rushed back to the bus. It is clear that one could spend a lifetime visiting and studying this magic place.

RECIPE

Baklava

When I think of Greece I think of baklava even though it is apparently originally a Turkish creation. That should not be too surprising since the histories and traditions of Greece and Anatolia have been intertwined for thousands of years (Think Trojan War.) In Greece, baklava is a traditional Easter confection, and apparently it is often made with 40 leaves of phyllo to honor the 40 days of Lent.

In this version, I have used only one of the two packages of dough that come in a one-pound box. There are 20 leaves in the package, so if you are able to fold them over on themselves, you will have the 40 requisite layers. I used an 8 x 8 inch pan, so that wouldn’t quite work, but I think you’ll find it close enough for an amateur try at the real thing.

 

Ingredients

  • 2 sticks (½ pound) unsalted butter
  • 3 cups mixed walnuts and unsalted pistachios, toasted in a dry sauté pan and coarsely chopped
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon powdered lemon peel
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/3 cup honey (preferably orange blossom)
  • peel from 1 orange without pith
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons orange liqueur
  • ¼ teaspoon orange flower water
  • ½ pound (one packet from one pound box) frozen phyllo dough, wrapped but thawed for 2 hours

Method

  • Prepare clarified butter by melting in an ovenproof measuring cup in the microwave. Skim off foam and pour off carefully without the solids that settle to the bottom. You should have about 180 mL. Set aside
  • Combine the chopped nuts, sugar, powdered lemon rind, and cinnamon in a small bowl. Set aside.
  • In a small saucepan, combine the sugar, water, orange peel, and lemon juice. Bring to the boil and then reduce heat to the simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the liqueur and orange flower water. Strain and set aside. Reheat when ready to pour over the baked baklava
  • On a clean, dry work surface, open the package of phyllo dough.The leaves will probably measure about 9 x 15 inches.  Spread out, cover with a sheet of plastic film, and a damp kitchen towel to prevent it from drying out while you work. Work as quickly as you can.
  • With a pastry brush, paint the bottom and sides of an 8 x 8 inch baking pan. Then take one leaf of dough and fit in the bottom, folding over as much as you can. Brush on some of the clarified butter. Repeat with 4 additional leaves of dough.Then sprinkle the top with 1/3 of the nut mixture.
  • Repeat the layering process twice more. You should have three layers of dough and nuts.
  • Top with the remaining leaves of dough, buttering each one as you go. That should use up all of the phyllo.
  • Score the finished stack into 1½ to 2 inch diamonds with a sharp knife. It is important to do this before you bake the baklava; otherwise the pastry will shatter when you cut it.
  • Bake in the middle of an oven preheated to 325°F for 30 minutes. Reduce the heat to 300°F and bake for 6o minutes more.
  • Meanwhile, reheat the flavored syrup.
  • When the top of the baklava is a golden brown, remove from the oven and cover with the syrup while it is still warm.
  • Let cool completely for at least 4 hours so that the syrup is completely absorbed.
  • Serve by cutting through each score.

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LAS POSADAS AND BISCOCHOS

Along the Border in El Paso, they’re called biscochos and in Northern New Mexico they are called bizcochitos, but they are the same cookie and an important part of the Christmas tradition. They are served at nearly every party, but they are essential to Las Posadas. This celebration recalls the biblical story of Mary and Joseph seeking lodging on their journey to Bethlehem in order to participate in the census. Throughout New Mexico the story is re-enacted in villages and urban centers alike. Two individuals dressed as Mary and Joseph lead a band of pilgrims from door to door, often around the plaza, seeking lodging. Repeatedly they are turned away, often with scornful cries, until at last they are welcomed in –  usually at the church on the plaza – to find rest and warmth.

Once the crowd is inside the welcoming site, there is a celebration with traditional songs, hot drinks like atole, and treats, always including biscochos.

There are many recipes for biscochos, but the best ones always include lard. This recipe is the best of the best. It comes from Lorenza Zuñiga, an amazing woman who worked as my promotora de salud many years ago when I worked in the clinics in the colonias along the Texas-Mexico border.

RECIPE

Ingredients

For cookies

  • 7½ cups flour
  • 1½ cups sugar
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 3 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon ground anise
  • 1 pound lard
  • 4 eggs, beaten
  • 1/3  cup pineapple juice (more if the dough is too dry)

For sugar-coating

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground anise

Method

  • Sift together the flour, sugar, salt, baking powder, cinnamon, cloves, and anise. Then add lard and mix well before adding beaten eggs and enough pineapple juice to make a soft dough. You may need to knead with your hands for a few minutes to incorporate all the ingredients.
  • Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface to a ¼ inch thickness. This should make a circle about 20 to 24 inches across. Cut into diamond shapes and place on an ungreased baking sheet.
  • Bake in an oven preheated to 350° for 10 to 15 minutes or until light brown. Check often as the cookies burn easily.
  • While the cookies are baking combine the remaining sugar, cinnamon and anise and place in a tray or other wide, shallow container.
  • When the cookies are baked, transfer them, still warm, to the sugar mixture in a tray. Turn them while cooling to completely coat them
Lard and dry ingredients

Lard and dry ingredients

Kneaded dough

Kneaded dough

Sugar and spice topping

Sugar and spice topping

Cutting two-inch diamond shapes

Cutting two-inch diamond shapes

Ready to bake

Ready to bake

Cooling and ready to eat

Cooling and ready to eat

The recipe makes about 3 dozen cookies, of course depending on the size of the diamonds.

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