This evening we have some people coming to dinner.
Like me, they’re foreigners, but local pride obliges me to show them some of the best home cooking that Emilia-Romagna, where I’ve lived for 25 years, has to offer.
Deciding on the menu took a while, but in the end I opted to go with an autumn classic, a sort of finger-food, so everyone can pick what they want. And plenty of wine to go with it, of course.
When the guests arrive, there’ll be pickles on the table – the little cucumbers that Roomie loves, strips of aubergine, cubes of winter veg, some nice olives.
Also a bowl of ‘pomdoro di pachino I.G.P.’, which aren’t local, but which were on offer at Pam, and a plate of ‘Uva senza semi di Puglia’, which are a sort of pink color, and not local either.
The main attraction will be two different breads, bear with me.
The first are ‘tigelle’, discs of freshly cooked dough, ‘baked’ seven at a time in an aluminium press over the gas flame of the hob.
I’ll start those just before the guests arrive, then keep them warm in a basket lined with tea towels.
Later, as we are supping prosecco, I’ll heat a pot of cooking oil to deep-fry strips of (a different) dough. In just a minute or so they’ll swell up to form little golden balloons, called ‘crescentine’. Drain any excess oil off and into a basket for the table. Careful, they’re hot!
Both the ‘tigelle’ and the ‘crescentine’ are supposed to be sliced or ripped open (by the guest, not by me) and filled with whatever cheeses, sliced meats, pickles and so on are on offer. Yum!
Neither bread is more than a couple of mouthfuls, so the idea is to keep eating them, trying all the different fillings, until you can’t stuff down another morsel. Burp.
To fill the breads with, I’ve come back from the supermarket with ‘tre etti di crudo’ (three hundred grams of sliced ham, that’s prosciutto ‘crudo’, so salted and aged, not cooked), ‘due etti di cotto’ (cooked ham, which people tend to like less), ‘quattro etti di squacquerone’ (Romagna’s version of the fresh white spreading-cheese that you find everywhere in Italy), ‘lardo’ (seasoned pork fat, for spreading, too), a lump of premium grade ‘mortadella’ (a Bologna speciality) to hack bits off, and a kilo of ‘parmigiano’, ditto.
Oh, and some ‘ruccola’, for color and vitamins.
So anyway, I’ve been doing ‘tigelle’ and ‘crescentine’ for my family, and occasionally for Italian guests, for almost all of the quarter of a century I’ve lived here. While that always amazes my neighbours, in the way that a dog walking on its hind legs attracts attenion, I’ve got pretty familiar with the process, so claim to cook Italian as well as the average Italian house-person, or better.
That said, I don’t do these things very often, and more frequently prepare other types of dough, for pizzas for instance, or for Turkish lahmacun. So it seemed like a good idea to double check the recipes, which are different.
The tigelle dough, given that it will be cooked in a metal press so doesn’t need to be shaped, could potentially have more liquid in it.
Whereas the crescentine dough, needing to be rolled out flat, cut into squares or oblongs, and dropped piece by piece into hot oil, needs to have a certain consistency, or disaster will follow.
My recipe for the tigelle dough has cream in it, and a tablespoon or two of olive oil. The crescentine dough, which will be oily enough once cooked, should need neither.
So I got down my dusty recipe books from the kitchen shelf and looked up ‘crescentine’ first: 50g of ‘farina’, 25g ‘lievito’ fresco, 300g ‘latte’…
I scanned the recipe, wondering where the hell the rest of the flour would come in, as 50g would barely be enough for a skinny bechamel sauce, let alone a dough for seven adults and a ravenous child.
Nope, no more flour was mentioned. So that 50g should, presumably, be 500g, like the basic pizza dough recipe of 3/5 liquid to the weight of flour (1kg flour, 600ml water).
“That book’s going straight in the bin” I told my Italian wife, and explained why.
“Oh, I’d just have followed it like that!” she replied, which no longer amazes me. She’s the editor of EasyItalianNews.com, where the writers regularly confuse millions with billions, celsius with Fahrenheit, and other such trivial details.
Maybe when cooking she might have followed the recipe without questioning it (which is why I do it), but not with anything she cared about, I’m sure.
She’s an expert knitter, for example, and a ‘bravissima’ mother, who can get a diaper on a struggling, uncooperative child the right way up, despite low-light conditions and without, of course, needing to check the instructions.
When I do it, the butt-side always ends up on the front of the baby, no matter how much I resolve to get it right.
Certain things you just know, more or less, how to do – because you’ve been doing them for decades, because you care, because you learnt once and never forgot.
With those things, when you see instructions that contain a mistake, or see someone else messing up (the way Italians drive, for example, without regard for lane discipline or turn indicators), it just jumps out!
Other things, for instance learning a foreign language, you may have never done before, or not successfully, anyway.
So when you come across instructions that appear to make sense but will lead to disaster (“look up all the words you don’t know in a dictionary”), you may not realise, until it’s too late!
If you have a recipe book you REALLY trust, or a knitting pattern designer whose instructions are clear and give great results, or even a teacher, then fine!
Unfortunately, you won’t know whose advice is good and whose isn’t, until you’ve messed up a few times.
And even if you don’t mess up, who’s to know that you might not have got better results doing something different?
It’s a conundrum that only time can clear up.
I’ve been cooking pizza since I was eighteen (37 years) and teaching languages since I was twenty-four (31 years).
So I can assure you that if you put in a few decades at something you’ll have a much better idea of what works, and what doesn’t.
You still might not be fantastic at it, but you’ll know enough to spot mistakes in the recipe.
But if you’re looking for results in the short term? If you can’t afford to wait decades?
Then be sceptical.
Check the quantities carefully.
Try different things.
But above all, evaluate the results you get.
Did what you did result in the progress you expected, or better?
Or was it a disappointment, like so much advice, so many miracle recipes?
To learn a foreign language, first learn how to learn.
Better still, learn how YOU learn.
Learn what matters and what doesn’t.
Learn how to ensure that the changes that are needed actually happen.
No one else will do this for you.
Don’t forget to read/listen to Tuesday’s FREE bulletin of ‘easy’ Italian news!