Friday, September 28, 2007

Zucchini and Tomato Gratin and Alice Waters' Food Revolution

Alice Waters is everywhere these days, shopping at the Union Square Greenmarket, cooking lunch for New York Times reporter Kim Severson, advocating for fresh and locally-grown food in Gourment Magazine, publishing a manifesto on the American food supply, changing the way we look at what we eat.

I must admit, I had never thought much about locally-grown produce. I'd heard the rumors, and I'd even shopped at the Union Square Greenmarket in New York City, but it was never really part of my consciousness. But, Susan at The Food Blogga is crazy for vegetables, and in the past year, she's caught my eye more than once with some of the freshest and colorful veggy creations on the planet. When Jill took me to the Ottawa Farmer's market to forage for ingredients for what she insisted be a locally-grown Canadian Feast, I could no longer deny the fact that there was something to this whole perspective. Frankly, the produce was far superior to anything I've ever come across in my local Waldbaum's grocery store.

So I was intriqued when a colleague suggested I pick up "Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution." How can you pass up a title like that? It's a little like something P.T. Barnum might have dreamt up!

Author Thomas McNamee delves into Alice Waters' psyche, the origins of the world famous Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkley, Calif0rnia, and most important, Waters' philosophy about food -- that it must be fresh, locally-grown and sustainable. The book is a tasty read, indeed. McNamee explores Alice's highly developed senses, her extraordinary palate, and the sex, drugs and drama in the kitchen at Chez Panisse over more than 30 years. There is her obsession with salad, and her drive to change the diets of American school children with the incredible "Edible Schoolyard" project that teaches children to grow, prepare and eat fresh food.

I'd made the obligatory foodie pilgrimage to Chez Panisse in 2004, but what I was lacking then was context. At the time, I didn't fully understand the philosophy behind the food. It would be a very different meal for me now. Alice's ethos says that food, ingredients and community are interdependent, and ingredients properly grown and prepared can sustain the community. Still, I have been troubled by the term "revolution" that is used frequently when referring to Alice Waters. To me, a revolution suggests dramatic, and permanent change. Waters has a life-long calling and mission, indeed. But there is still a significant portion of the population who won't or can't eat locally-grown produce. Still, I can't get those dazzling purple cauliflower I saw in Ottawa, or the stunning yellow zucchini from the North Fork of Long Island out of my mind.

Maybe a revolution can happen in a quiet kind of way, not dramatically, but with crisp flavors, and beautifully brilliant flashes of color. Maybe, if we all committed to one locally-grown dish per week, behaviors might begin to evolve, habits would change, health would improve and good taste would prevail. So I dug out my copy of Chez Panisse Vegetables, and joined the revolution, using locally-grown ingredients I purchased on the North Fork of Long Island:
Zucchini and Tomato Gratin (Adapted From Chez Panisse Vegetables by Alice Waters)
1 yellow onion
Olive oil
Salt and pepper
1 branch fresh thyme
Fresh basil leaves
6 plum tomatoes
2 large yellow zucchini
Balsamic vinegar
Panko bread crumbs
Chop onion and sautee in olive oil until translucent. Season with salt and pepper, add thyme leaves and basil. Slice tomatoes and zucchini into rounds. Layer the onion mixture in a deep, buttered quiche pan. Add a layer of tomatoes in an overlapping, circular pattern. Season with salt and pepper and sprinkle with balsamic vinegar. Add a layer of zucchini and alternate with tomatoes until the dish is full. Finish with a layer of zucchini and sprinkle with Panko bread crumbs, season with salt and pepper and drizzle with olive oil. Bake in a 350 degree oven uncovered for about 30 to 45 minutes.

Meantime, I'm off to Vermont in search of autumn leaves and food artisans of New England. See you back here later in October.

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, September 23, 2007

A Conversation over “Mystery Cake” in 1950

Ruth pushed back the gingham curtains, looked through the kitchen window and surveyed her rose garden. She smoothed back a lock of steel gray hair from her forehead.

On the counter was a well-used cookbook that she’d ordered through the mail – “Easy Ways to Good Meals.” She had collected the required number of labels and sent them in to the company to get the free book. The cake recipe on page 36 would be just right for the Women’s Guild bake sale at church.

She pulled a cardboard cartoon of eggs from the icebox that she’d purchased that morning at Sunrise Market on Merrick Road. She cracked a perfect brown egg into a glass bowl. Several fragments of shell fell into the white, and she fished them out with her forefinger before briskly whipping the egg white and yolk together with a rotary beater.

She took a can opener and ran it around the rim of a can with a bright red-and-white label. She added the secret ingredient, alternately with a flour mixture that contained ground cloves, mace and nutmeg, and the batter turned a deep blush pink. She then folded in raisins that had been tossed in the flour. She placed the pan in the oven.

The ticking of the Sunbeam timer resonated in the otherwise quiet kitchen. Ruth liked to bake. With Ruthie and Jimmy away so often now, it was a good way to keep herself busy.
The timer chimed and she took the cake out of the oven to let it cool on the white Formica kitchen tabletop. The house was filled with the smell of warm, autumnal spices. In another bowl, she used a wooden spoon to blend together cream cheese and powdered sugar. She added vanilla, beat the mixture into ribbons of shiny frosting and spread it on top of the square cake.

At the front of the house, Ruth heard the rap of the wrought-iron door knocker. She surveyed the kitchen quickly and hid the red-and-white can that contained the mystery ingredient. No sense leaving the evidence out in plain sight.

Ruth opened the front door and found Marion Canon on her threshold.

“Hi, Ruth,” said Marion. “I was in the neighborhood, so I thought I’d drop off the Chinese Checkers set we borrowed.” She held out a brown shopping bag.

“Oh, hi Marion,” said Ruth and gave her a hug. “Come on in. Would you like some coffee?”

The women chatted as they walked to the kitchen at the back of the house.

“Are you and Jim still planning to join us for Canasta next Tuesday?” asked Marion.

“Oh, sure,” said Ruth. We’re going up to Lake Secor this weekend, but we’ll be back in plenty of time.

“It smells like you’ve been baking,” said Marion.

They sat at the kitchen table, and Ruth poured two cups of coffee. The finished cake sat in the center of the table. Marion examined the cake.

“That looks delicious. What kind of cake is that?”
“I made it for the Women’s Guild bake sale. Sing Olsen told me it's called Mystery Cake.”

“Mystery Cake? Why?”

Ruth lowered her voice, almost to a whisper. “Well … don’t tell anyone, but it has a can of tomato soup in it.”

“Soup? In a cake?” exclaimed Marion.

“That’s the mystery ingredient,” smiled Ruth.

“I’d like to give that a try. It might be fun to try and stump John. Can I have the recipe?”

Ruth took a lined index card from the bureau drawer in the dining room and carefully wrote out the ingredients and instructions for Marion in her spidery penmanship:

Tomato Soup Cake

2 cups sifted flour
½ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon mace
½ teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon baking soda
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup seeded raisins
2 tablespoons shortening
1 cup sugar
1 egg, well beaten
1 can Campbell’s Tomato Soup

Heat oven to 350 degrees F. (moderate). Sift together the flour, spices, soda and baking powder. Wash and cut raisins; roll in 2 tablespoons of the flour mixture. Cream shortening and add sugar gradually; add egg, mixing thoroughly. Then add flour mixture alternately with the soup. Stir until smooth. Fold in the raisins. Pour into a greased 8 ½ inch square baking pan and bake at 350 degrees about 1 hour or until done.

Cream Cheese Icing

Cream 1 package (3 oz.) cream cheese until soft – then add 1 ½ cups confectioners’ sugar and 1 teaspoon vanilla. Stir until smooth and then spread on cool cake.

Marion took the index card and placed it in her handbag. She could no longer contain herself.

“Oh, Ruth, it looks scrumptious! Couldn’t we just try a little piece?”

“Alright, Marion,” chuckled Ruth. “It would be nice to give it a taste and I suppose I can always make something else for the bake sale. Or, I can just cut it into squares and bring it to church on a platter!”

Ruth cut through the glossy cream cheese icing and sliced two squares of the cake, handing one to Marion. A few moist, russet-colored crumbs dropped from the spatula to the plate.

“Here you go, Marion,” said Ruth. “I hope it will be all right.”

Author’s Note: Ruth Barritt was my paternal grandmother, whom we called “Nana.” She lived from July 1905 to August 2001 and was an excellent cook and baker. Despite her many successes in the kitchen, she would often present a finished recipe with the caveat, “I hope it will be all right.”

After reading a recent post by the Old Foodie on “
Conversation Cake,” I found the recipe for Tomato Soup Cake in a cookbook that belonged to Nana called “Easy Ways to Good Meals.” The recipe for Tomato Soup Cake – sometimes referred to as “Mystery Cake” or “Conversation Cake” – is on page 36 of the pamphlet, which was published by the Campbell’s Soup Company in 1950. Most likely, the cake was given these names because the main ingredient was a mystery and, once disclosed, it inspired conversation. Various sources say that Tomato Soup Cake first emerged in the early 1900s when it was developed by Campbell’s. Some say the recipe originally contained canned tomatoes, but that ingredient was replaced by canned tomato soup in the 1920s. Food writer M.K. Fisher even mentions the recipe in “How to Cook a Wolf.” Many thanks to the Old Foodie for sparking memories of Nana and the wonderful aromas and treats that came from her kitchen in Laurelton, New York.

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Kitchen Fun: A Cook Book for Children (1932)

My stash of cookbooks has overtaken the house. I’ve lost count and I’m considering running a classified advertisement seeking a part time cookbook librarian. My tastes run from the classic to the historic to the curious. Some cookbooks – one or two a month, maybe – are purchased on an impulse. I do wonder what kind of dinner party will inspire me to cook from Mountain Makin’s in the Smokies and the contents of the Sherlock Holmes Cookbook are a bit of a mystery. The I Love Lucy Cookbook makes me laugh, and I get nostalgic when I page through my volumes of children’s cookbooks. My collection contains a treasure trove of potential culinary adventures, so I thought it might be fun to do a little exploring from time to time.

Like many children’s cookbooks of the late 19th and early 20th century, Kitchen Fun: A Cook Book for Children, published in 1932 by Louisa Price Bell had the appearance of a storybook. Bell was, in fact, a children’s storybook writer. I got my copy through an online antique cookbook dealer, and the charming illustration of the little girl on the cover bears a striking resemblance to my mom when she was a youngster.

Kitchen Fun has 24 recipes with step-by-step directions and graphic symbols of food ingredients, measuring cups and water faucets make instructions simple to follow. I have a friend who was a pioneering food writer, and she told me she made the recipe for “Yummy Eggs” from Kitchen Fun on her honeymoon. The recipes are simple, sturdy and dependable – a solid foundation for children learning the ins and outs of the kitchen for the first time.

My copy has the name “Jean Brown” written in pencil above the table of contents page. I wonder who Jean Brown grew up to be, and what kinds of dishes she liked to cook as an adult?

Since autumn is just around the corner, and it is apple picking season, here’s a recipe from Kitchen Fun that will appeal to children of any age. Spicy Apple Sauce is simple, thick and delicious, with sweet flavors of juicy apples, peppery cloves and hints of honey.

Spicy Apple Sauce

From Kitchen Fun: A Cook Book for Children, The Harter Publishing Company, Cleveland, Ohio, 1932

6 Sour Apples (I used “Honey Crisp Apples” from the North Fork of Long Island)
2/3 cup sugar
1 Cup Water
8 Whole Cloves

Wash apples. Cut apples in quarters. Take out core carefully. Put apples, sugar, water, and cloves in saucepan. Cook ½ hour slowly. Mash through colander or strainer.

For more on children’s cookbooks, read American Children’s Cookbooks of the 50s and 60s which has just been posted on the Culinary Types main site.

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Long Island Wine

It is one of those iridescent blue-sky September mornings. The clouds dance across the horizon like soft white cowlicks.

I head east in my faithful cobalt-blue 1999 Toyota Corolla and soon I am on the North Fork in Long Island wine country. It has been for years, an annual pilgrimage. Finally past the outlet mall, the Riverhead Home Depot and the brand-spanking-new Target, I am now surrounded by farmland. When I was young, the fields produced potatoes and nurtured Long Island ducklings. Then, in 1973, a woman named Louisa Hargrave and her husband purchased a 300 year-old potato farm and planted ten thousand grapevines. Hargrave Vineyard was the first vineyard on the North Fork. Today, there are more than 60 vineyards and 38 wineries.

We natives learned early-on that the land mass called Long Island resembles a fish with two tail fins. The North Fork is long and narrow and points slightly northeast into the Atlantic Ocean. Surrounded by water, that makes the North Fork growing climate ideal for wine grapes. The warm maritime temperatures and lengthy summer season allows the grapes the maximum amount of time to mature and develop on the vine. More than 3,000 acres are now planted and lined with grape varietals like cabernet franc, chardonnay, merlot, syrah and viognier. Three appellations have been designated in the region – North Fork of Long Island, The Hamptons, Long Island, and Long Island.

We are just shy of autumn, but pumpkins and green and yellow zucchini abound at the farm stands, and fat green and black grapes make grapevines sag from their weight.

At Laurel Lake Vineyards, one of the oldest vineyards on the North Fork, I sample a bold 2003 Syrah full of pepper and black currant and a soft playful Riesling in a sublime blue bottle.

Pindar was founded in 1979, it is the largest vineyard on Long Island, and it attracts hordes of weekend visitors. There are now two or three huge tasting bars, and stretch limos crowd the parking lot.

The world is more leisurely at Bedell Cellars where the tasting room is located in a renovated potato barn built in 1919. Outside, an expansive porch looks out on the vineyards. A jazz ensemble plays bass and keyboard. I purchase a glass of Cabernet Franc that is rich with notes of blackberry, flint and leather. I take a seat and gaze out on the rolling green vineyards, as far as the eye can see. I feel like a lazy feline in the afternoon sun. Later, there will be salad made from fresh local farm stand corn, and ginger molasses cookies, but for now, it is a wine moment. And it is delicious.

Click below to experience more of the North Fork of Long Island, bursting with late-summer bounty.

© 2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Saturday, September 15, 2007


Breakfast. They say it is the most important meal of the day.

Some people love it. Some people loathe it. Some people even have breakfast for dinner.

I have distinct memories of breakfast growing up on suburban Long Island. Of course, the Barritt Boys all craved sugary cereals on weekdays. It was the 1960s, after all. One of our favorites, “Sugar Pops,” has now been reformed and renamed “Corn Pops” in a nod to better health and political correctness. On Sunday morning, when all six of us were busy getting ready for church services, we’d gulp down Carnation Instant Breakfast (preferably chocolate) to save time, and now and then we’d have pre-sliced frozen toaster bagels as a special treat before most of the world knew that fresh bagels were an option. On an occasional Sunday evening, Dad would fire up the electric frying pan and pile up stacks of fluffy pancakes with maple syrup and melted margarine.

There are intriguing cultural associations to the types of food with which we start our day. Larousse Gastronomic says history offers two very different breakfast traditions – a hot drink, or a more substantive meal. In France, the hot drink can be café au lait often accompanied by bread. Before coffee was popular in Europe, that first drink of the day was often soup. Spain had a salt cod soup tradition and in Poland, one might find that “first drink” soup made with beer. The British started the morning with beer with bread. Jolly good! The more substantial traditional English breakfast of eggs and bacon has lots of regional variations heavy on protein, which might include grilled kidneys, smoked fish or black pudding. Slow cooked oat “porridge” comes from the Scottish breakfast tradition, but Larousse Gastronomic points out that quick breakfast cereal is a modern invention, initially intended as health food. Dr. John Kellogg invented corn flakes at his clinic in Battle Creek, Michigan and a cereal dynasty was born. Dr. Max Bircher-Benner, dreamed up muesli – a mixture of raw fruit, nuts and oats – at his Zurich clinic.

When the weather cools, my morning thoughts turn to homemade granola. Fresh grains, and nuts are tossed together and baked, and the kitchen smells of toasted nuts, coconut and warm honey. Chopped dried fruit is added when the mixture cools. Granola is a baked version of the original muesli and my favorite recipe is a variation of one found in “The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook” by Ina Garten. For anyone who is a baker, you’re likely to have many of the ingredients left from a recent muffin, cake or cookie project, so it’s a nice strategy for quickly using up those bits of ingredients left in the pantry. The recipe has infinite variations, limited only by the imagination. My late summer addition is dried blueberries.

Homemade Granola

Adapted from “The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook” by Ina Garten

Two cups old fashioned oats
One cup sweetened coconut
Once cup sliced almonds
¼ cup of honey
½ cup cup vegetable oil

Combine dry ingredients in a large bowl. Wisk together the honey and oil and toss with the dried ingredients. Spread on a large cookie sheet and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes, tossing several times so the granola browns evenly.

When cool, add any combination of the following:

½ cup chopped dates
½ cup dried cranberries
½ cup dried blueberries
½ cup dried cherries
½ cup chopped figs
Handful of golden raisins

Store in airtight container.

Go ahead and get crunchy tomorrow morning. It’ll put a smile on your face and it’s a heck of a lot more appealing than a bowl of hot soup!

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Monday, September 03, 2007

Prize Winning Triple Seed Cake From 1954

The package that arrives in the mail from Phil T. contains several aging recipe pamphlets. The colors are fading, but the booklets are in mint condition.

The attached handwritten note says: “I came across the enclosed two booklets I want you to have. They both reminded me of your cake stories.”

I knew it would happen eventually. Several months and eight dozen pounds of butter and flour later, and I’ve become the patron saint of Retro Cakes. I couldn’t be more thrilled.

For someone like me, who is fascinated by food history, the package from Phil is a gold mine. I open the first slender pamphlet – “46 Great Drinks from New York and Restaurants at the World’s Fair.” Well, it’s not exactly about cakes, but it will sure come in handy after a tough day at the office. There are neat illustrations of women in Capri pants and men in cardigan sweaters drinking Old Fashioned Cocktails in cedar-paneled “rumpus rooms.” Phil is wise. He knows that man cannot live by cake alone.

The second booklet gives me plenty of cake options. The yellow printing on the cover stands out against a royal blue background – “From Pilsbury’s 5th $100,000 Recipe and Baking Contest: 100 Grand National Recipes.” The cost of the booklet is 25 cents.

In 1949, Pillsbury Mills, Inc. held the "Grand National Recipe and Baking Contest" to mark the company's 80th birthday. The response was overwhelming, and the Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest became an annual event, later switching to every two years. Scores of culinary hopefuls still compete today at individual baking stations for fame and recognition. Today the prize is $1 million. Cakes rise and so does inflation.

Mrs. Ralph E. Smafield of Detroit, Michigan won the top prize in the first competition in 1949 with a yeast bread recipe for “Water-Rising Nut Twists.” Mrs. Smafield walked off with a wad of cash, but her first name doesn’t even appear in the photo gallery of winners – only her winning smile and her husband’s full name. Shame on you, Betty Crocker.

The booklet in my hands contains the prize winning recipes from 1954, the fifth annual baking contest, which was actually dubbed the “Bake-Off” by the news media. The competition was held at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, and featured celebrities like Art Linkletter and Arthur Godfrey. The recipe book contains 100 recipes for Cakes, Cookies, Breads and Main Dishes. There’s even an official entry blank for the upcoming 6th Grand National Recipe and Baking Contest.

I flip through the book and a recipe on page 22 catches my eye – Triple Seed Cake, submitted by Senior Winner Anna D. Ellmer of Hillsdale, New York. It’s not clear how much money Anna won, and she appears to be a runner-up in the cake category. The “senior” category appears to refer to any contestant over 20 years of age. The introduction says, “Caraway seed, poppy seed and aniseed are sprinkled through this high pound cake. There’s fresh fruit flavor in the cake and the simple glaze.” It contains no other information about Anna.

I’m intrigued. The Oxford Companion to Food describes Seed Cake containing caraway seeds as “an old-fashioned curiosity, and rarely made” but was once quite popular in Great Britain. It even suggests that historically seed cake was served at the annual spring planting festival, although connection to seeds was purely symbolic and currant or plum cake was served at the celebration.

The recipe for Triple Seed Cake alternates layers of citrus-scented batter with aromatic seeds. Anna D. Ellmer clearly believed that if one type of seed was tasty, three would be even better. Anna also believed in efficiency, as Triple Seed Cake is relatively easy to assemble, although I’ve got a KitchenAid mixer and it is doubtful she had one in 1954. The recipe is as follows:

Triple Seed Cake

Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 75 to 80 minutes. Makes 10-inch tube cake.

Sift together 3 cups sifted Pillsbury’s Best Enriched Flour, 2 ½ teaspoons double acting baking powder, ¾ teaspoon nutmeg and 1 teaspoon salt.

Blend together 2/3 cup Crisco and 2 cups sugar, creaming well.

Add 4 unbeaten eggs, one at a time. Beat 1 minute after each.

Blend in 2 tablespoons grated orange rind and 1 tablespoon grated lemon rind; mix thoroughly.

Measure 1 cup milk; add alternately with the dry ingredients to creamed mixture, beginning and ending with dry ingredients. Blend thoroughly after each addition. (With electric mixer use low speed.)

Spread one-fourth of batter in 10-inch tube pan, well greased and lightly floured on bottom only. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon caraway seeds. Alternate remaining batter with 1 tablespoon poppy seed and 1 tablespoon aniseed, ending with batter on top.

Bake in moderate oven (350 degrees F) 75 to 80 minutes. Let cool in pan 15 minutes before turning out. Frost while slightly warm.

Fruit Juice Glaze: Combine 1 ¼ cups sifted confectioners’ sugar, 2 tablespoons orange juice and 1 teaspoon lemon juice. Beat until well blended.

I’ve been careful to select Pillsbury’s Best Enriched Flour and the tag line on the package confirms it is still the flour of choice for the Bake-Off. The batter whips into soft mounds. I layer the seeds into the batter, and place the tube pan in the oven. I imagine Anna Ellmer’s kitchen in Hillsdale, New York filled with the exotic aromas of citrus and fragrant seeds baking. I inhale the essence of the ingredients melding together – the sparkle of citrus zest, the tang of caraway seeds, the licorice scent of anise seed and the nutty, peppery zing of poppy seeds. It smells like Christmas in a tropical paradise.

I slice the cake with Mom and Dad and we share it over a cup of Constant Comment Tea, quite appropriate for a cake from 1954. The cake slices beautifully and waves of seeds are visible on each wedge.

Three cheers to Anna Ellmer and her Triple Seed Cake from 1954. While she wasn’t the grand prize winner, she kept her identity intact and she left us with a delicious legacy of a creative twist on an historic cake.

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Torta di Zucca – Pumpkin Cake

I’m feeling wistful for Italy.

Exactly one year ago, I was starting an eight week sabbatical, journeying to Italy to drink in the cuisine…and the wine. It was harvest season in Tuscany, after all. I consumed a lot of wine. One wisecracking travel agent described it as, “Italy on three bottles a day.” I did managed to learn a thing or two about the food, in spite of myself.

Things are different this year. At the moment, my most exotic destination is my kitchen on Long Island. Surprisingly, Long Island is becoming a bit of a food destination in its own right. When two dear friends, whom I’ll call “Valentine” and “Proteus” decide to accept an eight-month-old dinner invitation on the spur of the moment (Our friendship is deeply rooted in spontaneity. It keeps things fresh!), I am faced with the drama of organizing a respectable dinner with far less than my normal prep time.

I can do this. I’ve trained for these kinds of moments. It’s what developing a culinary sensibility is about.

As soon as I hang up the phone, I spring into action. I consult the Silver Spoon cookbook – The Bible of Italian Cuisine. I pull together the essentials for a late summer feast, inspired by the ingredients and culinary heritage of Italy.

Here’s an opportunity to taste the flavors of Emilia Romagna, Tuscany and Florence again without even leaving my kitchen. I strategize over bruschetta, salad, pasta with rosemary and roast pork. What I loved most about Italy was the simplicity of the cuisine. No need for a cast of thousands, just a few outstanding ingredients. The dessert will be particularly important for these guests, as they are passionate about their sweets.

What shall it be? Frosted layer cake? Homemade ice cream? Biscotti? Cannoli? I am flummoxed by the choices.

Torta di Zucca, or Pumpkin Cake jumps off the page. Simplicity at its finest. I recall the cakes we ate in Italy. Folded together in minutes, the batters consisted of a little flour, eggs, some sugar, a distinctive flavor, and perhaps an unexpected ingredient baked in a single layer to conclude a meal with understated elegance.

Torta di Zucca offers that kind of denouement. One half-cup of sweet butter is creamed with 1 cup of superfine sugar and two eggs until light and fluffy. Next add one cup of can pumpkin puree, two cups of self-rising flour, the grated zest of one lemon, 5 tablespoons of milk and the magic ingredient – eight crushed almond biscotti. The cookie crumbs give the soft ginger-colored batter dimension, crunch and the sweet aroma of almonds. Bake for 45 minutes in a single layer.

A few sunflowers, some Italian ceramics and the stage is set for dinner in Tuscany – a perfect afternoon of food and wine for a couple of gentlemen from Verona.

And, the Torta di Zucca? No theatrics – just a rich, nuanced, memorable performance.

©2007 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved