19. Hidden Talent

I’m about to reveal something revolutionary, so pay attention: in my home, I am the chief cook. My wife does all right, but she calls me “an artist in the kitchen.”

Growing up in Italy, I was never expected to do much around the house, let alone in the kitchen. There were two reasons for this. The first reason: in Italy, the home, and in particular the kitchen, is mamma’s domain. Sure, my sisters were expected to help out and learn from her, but, like most Italian mothers, mine treated me as a sort of prince (my wife snickers whenever I tell her I miss the good old days).

When I was little, my mother would rise just after sunup, put together the ingredients for a sauce, and place the pot over a very low flame. The sauce would simmer for hours as she fed the chickens, gathered their eggs, milked the cow, got us off to school, washed clothes by hand, hung them to dry, and tended to the large vegetable garden. At one o’clock, we’d all sit down to a delicious meal of pasta with the sauce, followed by a meat or eggplant dish.

The second reason: because I was a kid with physical challenges, not much was expected of me anywhere or by anyone. But this did not mean that I wasn’t observant.

The first time I visited the home of the woman who would become my wife, I insisted on preparing dinner. In the blender I placed black olives, a can of beans, and a can of plum tomatoes. In a pot I browned diced onions, garlic, and bacon in olive oil, then added the purée I had made along with a can of crushed tomatoes, salt, basil, and red pepper flakes. I let the sauce simmer for about an hour and then served it over fettuccine. It was my version of pasta alla fattoria (farm-style pasta). My girlfriend loved it, and why not — it was pretty good.

It was the first time I had ever attempted anything like that. Just like that, I realized I had a talent for cooking – who knew? As my mom said when I told her, I had never even boiled water when I lived in Italy. Ever since, I have made all kinds of dishes.

The next thing big thing I tackled in the kitchen was bread. I do not like what passes for bread in American stores. It’s too squishy and not at all like the crusty breads my mom used to make every week.

For the first few years, I put together the ingredients of the bread as I remembered my mom had done. The results were okay, not great. I knew I could do better, but not how.

A few months ago I was fooling around on Facebook when I found a video by a woman who has a cooking show in Italy. She made bread using essentially the same ingredients as me. The difference was in how long she let the dough rise and how she baked it. She placed the risen dough in a hot covered dutch oven and baked it at a high temperature. The resulting bread looked so good, I had to try her method.

Now my bread is fantastic! It comes out golden brown and much less crumbly than before.

My wife likes to bake cakes, cheesecakes, and cookies (though she refuses to do so too often). For years, I asked her to make Italian spongecake with a custard layer (Pan di Spagna), like mom used to make. She always declined, claiming that she didn’t know how. At first, I accepted this. Then it annoyed me.

I found a couple of recipes on the Internet and decided to try my hand at it. My first cake came out great, as did my second and third ones. They are especially tasty with a good dousing of sweet vermouth mixed with a little water and sugar.

There’s no stopping me now. I don’t have to rely on my wife to have all the Pan di Spagna I want. But, after a glance in the mirror, I have to admit, she is right about one thing: it’s better not to go overboard with the sweets.

Pan di Spagna courtesy of “Anton”
fresh from the oven courtesy of “Anton

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