Babilonia in Taormina, Sicily
When I got to Donatella’s house last night, Jovanna was waiting on the steps. She didn’t want to be the first to go in. We put our stuff down and Donatella put us straight to work without much explanation of what we were making or other chit chat. This time Jovanna chopped the onion and I was to mix ricotta and sugar, hopefully not for the same dish. Adam arrived soon after and was given a bar of chocolate to chop.
After some prying we were told we were making cassata (a Sicilian cake), arancini (a deep fried rice ball filled with a meat ragout), eggplant polpette (fried eggplant patties) and an orange salad. Donatella doesn’t talk much when we are cooking and gives quick abrupt orders in fast Italian. I’m sure she is using words that have specific meanings and I’m only getting the general idea. I thought I was just stirring the sugar into the ricotta. No. It is supposed to be beaten until fluffy and no, we don’t use any mechanical devices. Everything must be done by hand. Thankfully, Adam is there and can finish beating the ricotta for me.
Both the cassata cake and arancini are more assembled than cooked and work well with a lot of hands in the kitchen. We made the cassata in dessert cups rather than making the big traditional cake which is normally elaborately decorated and served at Easter.
For the bottom layer of our little cakes in a cup, Donatella first made a simple syrup to which she added ground almonds and blue food coloring, not without getting a little blue moustache in the process. Then the pane di Spanga (a dry cake, called Spanish bread) was cut in circle to form the bottom layer and in small rectangles to fit around the side of the cup making a sort of cake bowl in which to put the sweetened ricotta mixed with chocolate and chopped candied fruit. Another layer of pane di Spagna tops the filling and then iced with a meringue and decorated with sliced candied fruit.
For the arancini you work always with wet hands, placing a spoonful of rice in your wet hand and making a hollow for the ragout. After the ragout is placed in the hollow you put another spoonful of rice on top and form it into a ball patching any holes with more rice. The ball is first dipped in beaten egg and then in bread crumbs and deep fried until golden brown.
As the arancini were finishing cooking I made the eggplant polpette. Donatella had already boiled the peeled and cubed eggplant until quite soft and let it drain. The eggplant was then mixed with fresh bread crumbs, an egg, parmesan and seasoned with fresh basil. The mixture was then formed into pattties and pan fried until golden brown.
The orange salad was a simple mixture of oranges, parsley, oil and balsamic vinegar. The table was quite colorful with Donatella’s blue dishes contrasting with the golden color of the aroncini and the orange salad.
It was just us, the cooks, tonight as Donatella’s son and her house guest Stephanie were both gone. The food was better than I expected. I’m not usually a fan of fried foods, but the fresh hot rice balls were flavorful and crunchy. I’m always a fan of anything eggplant. The orange salad was simple and delicious. You don’t need much with good oranges.
The conversation was more engaging tonight. Adam’s Italian has improved greatly from just the evening before. This is his first week here and he is in a beginning class. Jovanna speaks good Italian (her father is Sicilian) and she grew up speaking some Italian. She is here trying to improve her grammar and is actually in a lower class than I am, which I think is nuts.
Donatella tells us about some of her projects. She is really an artist who does a variety of things. For example, she is putting together a chocolate exposition in Taormina at Christmas time, and is trying to promote a line of sandals where the top part of the shoe can be changed out to change the color of the shoe. She is also into astrology as a way of defining a person’s personality and asked us each what our sign was. Mine, Cancer, turns out to be not so good; overly emotional and lunatica, meaning my mood changes with the cycles of the moon. Never thought of myself that way. All in all a much more pleasant evening than the night before and I’m looking forward to what we’ll be cooking tomorrow, some kind of chicken dish?
For links to all the posts in this series see the Taormina, Sicily page.