26 March 2015

AUNTIE PASTA: Favorite Things Part II

CHIAVARI, Italy – It seems to me there are an awful lot of cookies and pastries connected to Lent, which is supposed to be a period of fasting, moderation, and self-denial. Almost every town and region in Italy seems to have its own Quaresimali (Lenten) cookie or pastry, and often more than one.
 Convent of Sant'Antimo, Toscana
Lent begins with Ash Wednesday and ends with Easter Sunday, and those six weeks are often compared to the way people in the Old Testament fasted and repented in sackcloth and ashes. In keeping with that old tradition, only sweets and treats made with the most basic of ingredients were allowed.

The rules were simple: no meat and no animal fats. But leave it to the clever Italians to figure out how to create treats that followed the rules of the Church, but at the same time were delicious. Here are two cookies and a surprising snack that get the Quaresimali seal of approval.  
 Genova's Biscotti Quaresimali


It’s impossible to know how long it took the Augustinian nuns of the church of San Tommaso in Genova to figure out how to make a cookie without butter or eggs, but they did. The answer was not easy to find, in fact it was hundreds of miles away in Sicily. In Sicily the nuns were making a sweet called marzipan out of ground almonds and orange flower water. It was one of many Arab-Persian recipes that had been handed down from generation to generation starting back in the 800’s when Sicily was the Emirate of Sicily, an Islamic state whose capital was Palermo.

The Genovese nuns tried the ground almond and orange flower water recipe and it was fine as long as they didn’t bake it, but they wanted cookies, not candy. They knew the problem was the no eggs rule. They needed eggs to hold the mixture together, there was no way around it. But just maybe, if they only used the white of the eggs the cookies would hold together and it would only be a partial infraction of the rules. So they did. And it worked.

During the three hundred years that followed, the Convent of San Tommaso closed and no one was making the Quaresimali cookies any longer. In the 1800’s the Genovese confectioner’s shop Romanengo decided to start making their version of the cookies, and they have been making them every Lenten period ever since.

Romanengo’s Confectioner’s shop is still around and still selling Quaresimali cookies and they are just as delicious as they were in the 1500’s when the clever Augustinian nuns first created them.
 Florence's Biscotti Quaresimali


The only “luxury” allowed on these special cookies from Florence was a sprinkle of cocoa, which when these cookies were first made, was truly a luxury. It was the nuns in a convent between the Tuscan cities of Florence and Prato who first came up with a recipe that didn’t use butter or egg yolks. They made the dough and shaped it into the letters of the alphabet to remind them of the words of the Gospel.

The nuns made the cookies for the priests and other men of the church, and for the rich, aristocratic families of Florence who supported their convent. However, it wasn’t long before a famous Florentine cookie factory started producing and promoting the cookies   as a Lenten treat. Needless to say they were a big hit in a time when fasting and self-denial was taken very seriously. Today you will find alphabet cookies in pastry shops in Florence and Prato and many other Tuscan towns during Lent. 
 South Tyrol's Fastenbrezel


In the mountains of South Tyrol, the favorite snack during Lent is a pretzel called a Fastenbrezel  -  and it’s thought to be the oldest snack in the world. It certainly is the most popular snack in the German speaking parts of Italy – South Tyrol - as well as in Germany and Switzerland.

In the late 18th century, Southern German and Swiss German immigrants introduced pretzels to North America.  Many of them settled in Pennsylvania and were known as Pennsylvania Dutch. They started selling pretzels and the idea took off from there. I never realized how popular pretzels were until I moved to Philadelphia in the 1980’s  and saw street vendors selling big soft pretzels – with mustard or without – on almost every corner in Center City. 
I thought it was a new twist on the hot dog carts that you find on many a corner in New York. Little did I know that the average Philadelphian eats twelve times as many pretzels as the national average, and that the Philly vendors were actually carrying on an old European tradition.  

There are a few versions of how the pretzel came to be but my favorite is that they were created in 610  AD by a Benedictine monk in northern Italy. He made them as a prize for his students who had managed to memorize verses from the Bible.  The form represented two hands clasped in prayer while the three holes symbolized the Holy Trinity.  And as the word “pretzel” is derived from the Latin word “pretiola”, which means reward, this may very well be its true origin.

Because pretzels are made from simple ingredients, it wasn’t long before people realized they were perfect as a Lenten snack. They still are, but their popularity has gone well beyond Lent as a stop at any bar in Philadelphia at Happy Hour will prove.

22 March 2015

LIFE: Pope Francis Goes to Naples

CHIAVARI, Italy - Pope Francis paid a visit to Naples, Italy yesterday and the city exploded with joy.

Three million people turned out to see him, including including 68 cloistered nuns who had been given special permission to leave their convents.  Hundreds of church bells rang out to mark his arrival and 1,500 singers with joined voices in the central Piazza del Plebiscito when the Pope arrived there to celebrate Mass. The photos will tell the rest of the story.
 Waiting for Pope Francis
It Was a Joyful Greeting
 A Proper Papal Setting
 With the Blood of San Gennaro
 Will the Blood of San Gennaro Liquify?
 Some of the Blood Liquified -  Which It Never Did for John Paul II and Benedict XVI
 The Nuns Meet the Pope
And the Pope Meets the Nuns
 Crowds Greeted Him Everywhere He Went
 They Cheered and Waved and He Waved Back
 It Was a Busy Day But  Not Too Busy for a Selfie
 It Was a Long Day, But the Boys Were With Him Every Step of the Way

19 March 2015

AUNTIE PASTA: A Few of My Favorite Things

CHIAVARI, Italy – There are many cookies and pastries connected to Lent and St. Joseph’s Day, the Festa of San Guiseppe, and every town and region in Italy seems to have its own specialty. You probably know the first pastry as they are popular all over the world, but the others might be a bit of a surprise.
 Pasticceria Giolitti, Rome, Italy
It’s not always easy to follow the threads from probable origins to the tables of today. But even though stories may jump centuries, they seem to turn up again and again and pick up not always where they left off, but where they are at that particular moment, and then go on to continue the story from there.  If nothing else, the tales show a respect for tradition and the foods – in this case sweets - that have come down to us through the centuries to find their place in the story of Italian food today.


Zeppole, or zeppele, are a good place to start. The origin of the zeppole dates back to the ancient celebration of the Roman festival Liberalia. This pagan feast, which was held on March 17th, celebrated the transition of 14 year old boys to manhood.  For the Romans it was an important festa complete with sacrifices, processions, rowdy songs and of course eating, drinking and carousing.   

Then, somewhere between the Romans carrying on as Romans liked to do, and the onset of Christianity, the buckwheat pancakes hung-over Romans used to fry up for breakfast after being out half the night, morphed and re-morphed into what we now know as zeppole.

The zeppole went on to become one of Naple’s favorite pastries, and in the early 1900’s, when millions of Italians migrated to the Americas, they brought with them the joy of the delicious cream filled zeppole we all enjoy today.

In the month of March, you will find these sweet little rice frittelle for sale throughout Tuscany. In Siena they are called frittelai, and in the past those who made them did their best to keep the recipe a secret. They wouldn’t tell anyone if they used rice, and if they did use rice, what kind of rice they used, or what kind of flour they used, if they flour.  Everything was done behind closed doors and as far away from prying eyes as they could get.

But then Maestro Martino de 'Rossi  wrote his famous cookbook "Libro de Arte Coquinaria" and right there, in Chapter 5, under “Frictella”, was the long held secret of the Siennese frittelle. No one knows how Maestro Martino got the recipe, but since it was the second half of the 1400’s, and he cooked for Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan and also for Pope Martin V, you can believe he had some powerful friends who helped him out.   

What I find interesting is that at the time, rice was a mysterious thing to Italians, and they really didn’t know what to do with it. They certainly did not eat it. Instead, cooks in the medieval kitchens ground the grains into a powder and used it as a spice or to thicken soups and sauces.

Now that their secret cookie recipe is no longer a secret, on or around March 23rd, the women of Lupicciano-Pistoia throw a big party in the town’s piazza with music and games for the kids and lots of Frittelle di San Guiseppe to eat.  So do the ladies of Corsalone-Chiusi della Verna (Arezzo), but their party day is March 30th.  Even after all these centuries, the tradition of frittelle di San Guiseppe lives on in the heart of Italy, and in the hearts of the Tuscans.


Maritozzi are small sweet breads, about the size of a croissant. In the days of the Roman Empire they were sweetened with honey and raisins and called pagnottelle – or possibly pagnottelius. Either way they were a favorite snack with the locals, especially after a night out on the town.   

On the first Friday of March couples who were engaged would exchange maritozzi decorated with entwined hearts or hearts pierced with an arrow, often hiding rings or small gold trinkets in the sugary decorations. It was Valentine’s Day Italian style before there was a Valentine’s Day.

The name maritozzi was most likely extracted from the Italian word for husband, “marito”, as knowing how to make a good maritozzi was one of the criteria a guy used when he was looking for a bride. The girls who made the best maritozzi always got the most attention from the boys – and with a little luck, a marriage proposal. That must be where that old saying, “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach” came from. 

Sweet as they are, maritozzi are one of the few pastries allowed during Lent. The only reason why that is true, at least the only reason I can think of is either one of the Popes had a brother, or another relative, who was a baker, or he himself had a real weakness for maritozzi, so he gave them a thumbs up during Lent. I guess we will never know. Have a Happy St. Joseph’s Day.


15 March 2015

LIFE: Easter at the Vatican Redux

CHIAVARI, Italy - As we get closer to Easter, the Italian television airwaves will be taken over by the religious Easter festivities in Rome.  The celebrations officially start on Holy Thursday with the Mass of Chrism, (holy anointing oil).  This mass includes the reading of the Passion, which chronicles Jesus’ capture, suffering and death.
The Vatican, Rome
Later in the day, at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, Pope Francis will wash the feet of 12 men, following the tradition of Jesus and his Apostles. Both masses mark Christ's founding of the priesthood at the Last Supper on the night before he died.

On Good Friday, the day of Christ’s crucifixion in 33AD, the Pope says mass in the Basilica of St. John Lateran (Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano). St. John’s was built by the Roman Emperor Constantine in the 4th century. Constantine was the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity and St. John’s is the cathedral of the Bishop of Rome. It is known as Omnium urbis et orbis Ecclessarium Mater et Caput – the Cathedral of Rome and of the World.   

 Via Crusis, Rome
On Friday evening the Pope leads a torch-lit procession from the Colosseum to Palatine Hill (Via Crucis Procession), and at predesignated stops, they recite the prayers appropriate for each of the Stations of the Cross.

The Easter Vigil mass at the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Basilica will start at 9PM on Saturday night. No lights will be lit. The Basilica will be shrouded in darkness until Pope Francis enters. He will be carrying a long, white Paschal, a special Easter candle decorated with gold leaf. 

 Pope Francis, Holy Friday Mass
From the single flame of the Paschal, twelve candles are lit and from those twelve, hundreds of other smaller candles will be lit, one by one, until the entire church is bathe in candlelight. As the candles are being lit, the Pope will proceed to the altar and begin Mass by saying: 

 “Brothers, on this most holy of nights, in which Jesus Christ our Lord passed from the depths of death to life, the Church, in every part of the world, calls on its children to keep watch and pray.” 

Pope Francis
He will be dressed in a gold robe, called a chasuble, with a white and gold stole around his neck. On his head will be a precious gold and white mitre encrusted with jewels. The style was adopted by the clerics from the Romans who wore hats that were very similar in style to the mitre, and the chasuble is a variation of the robes worn throughout the Roman Empire.

The colors of the Pope’s chasuble and mitre are important as colors represent qualities such as virtue and holiness.  The gold color of the Pope’s chasuble symbolizes what is precious and valuable. It also symbolizes majesty, joy and celebration, and because of its brightness, metallic gold, like that found on the Pope’s miter, symbolizes the presence of God. 

Under the chasuble he is wearing a white robe.  Visible is a part of the collar around his neck and the edges of the cuffs under his sleeves. The color white has long symbolized purity, holiness and virtue, as well as respect and reverence. It is used for all high Holy Days and festivals.

 Easter Mass at the Vatican
Easter Sunday is joyful. The Vatican altar is filled with flowers in anticipation of the mass that will be said there to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus and his Ascension into Heaven. The Pope shares this special day with the thousands of faithful followers who gather in St. Peter’s Square to see him. He stands before the crowd and delivers his message of peace for the Urbi et Orbi (the city and the world).  After the Urbi et Orbi message, which is broadcast throughout the world, the Pope blesses the crowd.  

You can participate in all of the Easter events  and information on how to do that is available on the Vatican web site (www.vatican.va). And it is all free. You do need to make reservations for everything however, including the Sabato Santo (Holy Saturday) mass at the Vatican. 

You can also make a reservation for a Papal audience on the same web site. Some tour operators have been known to charge large amounts of money for a Papal audience, but the truth is the Vatican does not charge for the Papal audiences. They are free. Actually you are better off if you organize your own visit.  You just have to do it well in advance as tickets are limited. 

 Invitation to a Papal Audience at the Vatican
To reserve a place at a Papal audience go to this page of the Vatican website: http://www.vatican.va/various/prefettura/index en.html and click the “continue” button at the bottom of the page. It will take you to an application form that you can download, fill out and return to the Vatican office. The form must be sent by fax or mail (no email) - the instructions are on the site - and when your application has been processed you will receive instructions regarding your audience and where to pick up your tickets. 

It's a good idea to stay until the end of the audience as that is when the Pope will bless everyone in the audience and those who can’t be there. And if you take your medals and rosary beads and other items to the audience, you can then give them as gifts knowing that they have received the Pope’s personal blessing.