Segan can fill you in on all things sweet and Italian at the accurately named Dolce Italia and in her upcoming book, where she'll feature easy family recipes from real people in Italy, working moms, food reporters, and chefs.
I spoke with the food historian and cookbook author and food editor of Betty Confidential and she explained what those mystery Italian cakes in a box that appear every holiday season are all about and gave me some extremely simple (I mean really, really simple) recipes ideas to impress my friends and neighbors. Get ready to be hungry.
Congratulations on being the Ambassador for Italian Sweets! How does one get that amazing gig?
For the past couple of years, I've been researching, writing, and lecturing about sweets history in general. I've got a fascination with Italy, so I focus a lot on Italy.
Years ago the Italian government got wind of my work and invited me to come to some of their big shows. Then I also started to work on a book on Italian desserts, so they decided that I might be a great spokesperson and ambassador. I speak fluent Italian and write a column from an American's point of view on Italy; showing them what things I find fascinating that they may take for granted or may not realize.
Why does everyone love Italian food?
Because it's delicious!
What I love about it is you taste what you're eating. I think there's something fun about the chefs that do all this new cuisine and molecular culinary feats where they turn everything into a powder or a gelee. But there's something kind of scary about that when you don't know what you're eating.
It's psychologically good to say, "This pasta has oil and garlic and red pepper flakes." That's it! I tasted each ingredient. I can see the combination and there are just a few ingredients.
It's also what makes it fun to cook Italian -- the huge respect for ingredients. Don't use too many. Don't do too much to it. Even in ancient Roman cookbooks, you'll see, "Find the best fish you can. Put it on a hot coal just a few seconds and use the best sea salt." And that's it! That would be a recipe.
We really should be putting the best things we can into our bodies and then maybe we wouldn't put too much of them in.
I've heard conflicting reports and I'm hoping you're the person to clear this up. Is it true Italians invented ice cream?
It depends on how you define ice cream. I certainly think that what we consider ice cream today -- that nice creamy smooth ice cream -- is definitely an Italian, Neapolitan invention.
Other cultures have frozen liquids but the real ice cream we think of is Italian. The Chinese would freeze an almond milk or soy milk because they don't like so much milk. There are documents that say they served the Ambassador from Beijing almond milk frozen in a bowl of snow.
I just had (for the first time, believe it or not) one of those Italian cakes in the box you usually see at Christmastime. What's the story with those? And how does it stay moist in that box?
There's Pandoro with no candy fruit in it. When you slice it horizontally, it comes off in a star shape. Panettone is like a rounded dome of brioche with candied orange peel and raisins in it.
The secret to why Panettone, Pandoro, and the Easter cake, Colomba, last so long is two things. One, they create their own yeast. That little packet of yeast, the brown stuff -- that's not what they use. They take flour and water and put it in a big bowl, and they let it ferment naturally. As it starts to ferment, they pull pieces of it when it's at the right point. Then they put each little piece in its own little bassinet, wrap it up in this white cotton cloth, cover it, put it on the shelf with a number, and work it 24/7. During your eight-hour shift, you're in charge of babies number 1 through 40. They turn them and massage them for 40 days. At the end of the 40 days, this little bit of dough has grown to the size of the bassinet. Because it's actually yeast, kind of like yogurt, it just naturally keeps the cake moist and fresh.
The other thing they do is bake it in its own paper. They mix it with other flour and sugar and other ingredients, then they plop it in the baking paper. By the time it bakes the top -- which has a little sugar that rises to the top -- it has a crunchy covering of sugar. Then the paper covers the rest so it has its own hermetic seal. They even had scientists from the government and I spoke to them -- there are no preservatives and it lasts six months!
What's your favorite Italian dessert to make?
It depends on the season. I think that's another thing that's really different about Italian desserts. You can't find certain ingredients in Italy out of season. Something we Americans don't like. What do you mean I can't have this Pandoro cake in the summertime? Because Pandoro is only for sale from September through January.
Last night, I taught a class at a cooking school here in New York and we made a traditional Tuscan dish called zuccoto. You just take a Pandoro cake or a beautiful sponge cake and line a bowl with it, then use any kind of liquid you like. It could be ice cream, it could be custard you made, it could be a ricotta cream. Then you put it in the fridge and it becomes a cake -- a dome-shaped cake. It's fun because you didn't have to bake. It's a refrigerator cake.
I also love Italian ladyfingers. In Italy they're called savoiardi. Ladyfingers are these dry cookies you can get in a supermarket. The Italian ones are kind of crisp. I've been looking them up in these old 1800s cookbooks and I can't believe how many things you can do to them. Stack them on a plate and smear chocolate sauce on them, and they suck it all up and become a cake.
What's the easiest Italian dessert to make?
One of the easiest is something that uses a base of something else. The easiest thing is to play around with the Italian ladyfingers. It's going to suck up any liquid, so if you've got a box of vanilla pudding or fresh fruit salad, then put the ladyfingers on the bottom of the plate, throw some fresh fruit salad on and maybe a little dollop of whip cream or a dollop of yogurt, and you've got an instant dessert.
Another recipe from my Opera Lover's Cookbook is the Amaretti Roasted Peaches (see the recipe below).
For an even easier recipe, you can also take peaches, cut them in half, and throw them on the grill. Then top them with some crushed Amaretti cookies. Those cookies last your whole life -- give them to your kids when they're babies and they'll last until they graduate from college.
They're delicious and they've got no sugar but a really strong almond taste. It makes this wonderful quick strudel top on any kind of fruit.
Recipe excerpted from Opera Lover's Cookbook by Francine Segan
Find it at Dolce Italia.
- 5 large peaches
- 12 Amaretti cookies, about 3 ounces
- 1/3 cup almond liqueur, such as Caffo Amaretto, plus more as needed
- 1 egg yolk
- Sliced almonds
- Confectioners' sugar
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Generously butter baking pan. Set aside.
2. Cut peaches in half and discard pits. Using grapefruit spoon or melon baller, scoop out centers of 4 peaches. Reserve pulp.
3. Combine pulp and 2 remaining peach halves in food processor or blender and puree until smooth. Add Amaretti, liqueur, egg yolk, and sugar and pulse until well combined. If mixture is dry, add more liqueur.
4. Fill each peach half with the cookie mixture. Top with sliced almonds and a very thin pat of butter. Arrange halves onto baking pan and bake 30 minutes, until golden.
5. Serve at room temperature topped with a sprinkle of confectioners' sugar.