Slow Cake

Feasting is a way of celebrating special events, and many festivals have acquired a constellation of typical dishes. Often these are elaborations of everyday food, tarted up for the occasion. In many parts of Italy (maybe all, but I haven’t been everywhere) no meal is complete without bread, so what better food to make a fuss of.

The Garfagnana has its own special Easter bread called pasimata.

Easter cake at Daniela's shop

The sell-by date is August, but I bet it doesn’t last that long!


Paolo Magazzini, the village baker at Petrognola to whom I take my guests for bread lessons, recounted his procedure, the lengthy traditional way.

telling recipe for pasimata

Paolo turns a recipe into a thriller (photo: Alex Entzinger)

You take flour, sugar, butter, eggs, milk and lievito madre (starter dough).

Day 1 morning: mix all ingredients.

12 hours later: add more of the same ingredients except the starter dough.

Day 2 morning: add more of the same ingredients except the starter dough.

12 hours later: add sultanas, aniseed, vin santo (sweet Tuscan dessert wine), chestnut-flavoured liqueur.

Day 3 morning: light wood-fired oven.

Bake a batch of bread.

Put pasimata dough in round tins.

After one hour, take bread out. Oven will be exactly the right temperature for pasimata.

Bake pasimata for 40 minutes.

Remove from oven and eat enthusiastically.

sliced pasimata of the garfagnana

Bread dressed up like cake

The long rise over 48 hours allows time for the development of exceptional flavours and aromas.  Today many people make a ‘fast cake’ version in an hour by substituting baking powder for sourdough starter. Next Easter I’m going to organise a blind tasting of the slow and fast versions.

I didn’t ask Paolo for the quantity of each ingredient, since I can get my fix from him. For those not so lucky, here’s a similar recipe from Castiglione in Garfagnana, a walled town which during the Renaissance was batted back and forth like a ping-pong ball between Lucca and Modena. Perhaps they consoled themselves between battles by eating pasimata.


Signs of the times in California

Just back from my annual visit to family and friends in Los Angeles, Costa Mesa and Santa Barbara. It was a foodie time. Not least because my sister Gai Klass, before she retired, was top caterer in LA (according to me and the Zagat Guide); my 3-year-old great-nephews are following in the family tradition; my friends in Costa Mesa came on my Advanced Salumi Course last year and are ace picklers, aficionados of Mexican cuisine and blossoming norcini (curers of pork); my friend in Santa Barbara is a private chef (who did a personalised tour with me several years ago); and the rest are great cooks and lovers of good food.

I report the latest trends.

Armies of pigs have invaded delis, restaurants and antique shops. Everywhere I went pork, from ears to ribs to tails, was on the menu.

Local pork butchered on-site and fermented food served picnic-style at outdoor tables

Local pork butchered on-site and fermented food served picnic-style at outdoor tables in Solvang

Bacon & Brine artwork

Bacon & Brine artwork

Emperor for a day

Emperor for a day at a deli near Solvang

Piggy banks at Angels Antiques, Carpinteria

Piggy banks at Angels Antiques, Carpinteria

Wild boar bowl at Angel Antiques, Carpenteria

Wild boar bowl at Angel Antiques, Carpenteria

As expected wine held sway even in the loos in the Santa Ynez Valley, best known for its Pinot Noir.

If only opticians were so creative

If only opticians were so creative

But craft beer was running a close second (as it does now in Italy)…

Old West saloons surely were never as good as this.

Old West saloons surely were never as good as this.

…and came first on Main St, Venice (CA)

Must tell them about Garfagnana 100% farro beer (wheat).

Must tell them about Garfagnana 100% farro beer (wheat).


What a long marriage!

Requires documentation

…and in Carpinteria.

How did I get on the wrong side of the tracks from this tap house?

How did I get on the wrong side of the tracks from this brewery tap house?

Sardinians on Main St, Santa Monica, produce one of Italy’s best exports.

American vehicles queue up for artisan gelato (saffron and hazelnut were a surprisingly good pairing).

American vehicles queue up for artisan gelato (saffron and hazelnut were a surprisingly good pairing).

And everyone was getting on the buy local and gluten-free band-wagons.

But does it taste good?

But does it taste good?

In case you’re in the area, I’m sure they’d all love to see you:

Bacon & Brine, Solvang

Angels Antiques, 4846 Carpinteria Avenue, Carpinteria,

DolceNero, 2400 Main Street, Santa Monica

For a dinner that was so good that I forgot to take a photo:
Barbareño, 205 W Cañon Perdido Street, Santa Barbara

PS The next generation gets a head start in the kitchen.

Grand-nephew Charlie bakes muffins with nana.

Grand-nephew Charlie bakes muffins with nana Gai.


Posted in BAKING, BEER, COOKING, GELATO, PORK, Salumi | 4 Comments

Pasqua at Benefizio

Pasqua is Italian for Easter. Last year I went to Francesca Bonagurelli’s agriturismo Al Benefizio to join her family and friends for their typical Easter lunch.

The dining room was decorated

Family and friends were there

Queen of the day Francesca at the right edge of the photo nearest the kitchen, her daughter, her nephew, her cousin from Milan, her brother-in-law, her sister, her mother and her dear friend Marta.

The table was laid

Chocolate eggs flaunting their Easter gowns

In ever more extravagant wrapping

Except for these happy nudists at the other end of the table

An antipasto consisting of the usual crostini and some olives didn’t prepare me for the surprises to come. The primo was something I’d never had before: gnocchi alla romana. Instead of the little potato cylinders, these circular cakes were made of semolino polenta to which egg yolks and parmigiano was added. And instead of boiling them, they were sprinkled with butter and more parmigiano and browned in the oven. Delicious!

Francesca's gnocchi are heart-shaped

The secondo, roast beef, was accompanied by enough vegetables to please any of my clients, who are always asking, ‘Where are the vegetables?’

Perfectly roasted beef

Stuffed artichokes

Roast mixed vegetables

Roast potatoes

Here again there was a surprise: a vegetable looking like the hair of a punk angel who had dyed it bright green. It was Salsola soda, a saltwort that grows around Mediterranean coasts and is harvested between March and May. In Italian it’s called agretti or barba dei frati (monk’s beard—a punk monk?). Wikipedia tells me that it was important historically as a source of soda ash, one of the alkalis needed for soap and glass making. The clarity of cristallo glass from Murano depended upon soda ash. As a food it’s supposed to have a detoxifying effect.



Just when we thought we would burst, the table was cleared, the cakes arrived and the spumante was uncorked.

Alberto and Isabella open the bubbly

Naturally there was a colomba di Pasqua (Easter dove), a traditional Easter cake similar to panettone served at Christmas.

An Easter dove topped with sugar and almonds

Recently arrived from Naples was another novelty: the pastiera napoletana wrapped in its Easter finery.

The pastiera was from the renowned Gran Bar Riviera

One legend reveals its origin. One night some fishermen’s wives left baskets of ricotta, candied fruit, wheat, eggs and orange flowers on the beach as an offering to the sea, so it would protect their husbands and bring them back safe and sound. The next morning, when they descended to the beach to greet their returning husbands, they discovered that the waves had mixed the ingredients, and in the baskets was a cake.

Pastiera without its Easter veil

It comes with a packet of confectioner's sugar

Now it's ready to be served

I'm inviting the sea waves to make me a cake this year



Seasonal Eating 6: Befanini

When I think of seasonal eating, I usually think of what’s available from my orto (vegetable plot), fruit trees and local farms at a particular time of year. But there’s another kind of seasonal eating: the traditional foods that help us celebrate holidays and rites of passage. In Tuscany and more especially in the Province of Lucca, this is the time to eat befanini, a simple biscuit or cookie.

Christmas cookies of Casabasciana

Befanini made by Eugenia of Casabasciana

The name comes from ‘Befana’, which in Italian derives from ‘Epifania’, or Epiphany in English, which in turn comes from the Greek verb meaning to appear. The date is always the 6th of January, the twelfth day of Christmas, the day with all those Drummers Drumming, but also the day when Christians celebrate the ‘Incarnation of Jesus Christ’ and the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem bearing gifts.

Magi arrive in manger

The three magi arrive bearing rich gifts in a presepe at Pescaglia

As far as I can discover, the Befana, a witch who travels around on a broomstick taking presents to children on the eve of Epiphany, is particular to Tuscany, and especially to the Province of Lucca. It’s first documented in the 13th century. For an image see:, and if you read Italian, you’ll discover a delightful explanation of the tradition of Befana. Americans will immediately wonder how this little old witch became associated with Halloween, or vice versa. If anyone has the answer, I’d love to know.

The befanini of Barga are the most elaborate I’ve seen, truly works of art.

Christmas cookies of Barga

Befanini made by Francesca of Barga

My friends Francesca (who created the befanini above) and Marta explained to me that these biscuits were made by peasants to offer to the Befana when she visited their farms. In an agricultural economy with little cash, sugar was scarce and only used for special occasions. Besides the sugar, the befanini acquired extra value by virtue of the labour lavished on their decoration.

In my village of Casabasciana we celebrate the Befana in the traditional way, which you can read about in my blog: The Good Witch Befana. One of the most satisfying things about celebrating with locals, is that you always learn something new. When I wrote that blog two years ago, I hadn’t been educated by Francesca and Marta. It seems the Befana isn’t a pagan character after all, and now I realise that giving money to the Befana is an innovation, a way of monetising the custom. But I suppose you can’t repair the church bells with befanini.


Posted in BAKING, FESTAS, HISTORY, TRADITION, Tuscany | 2 Comments


When I went to dinner with some friends, I took them some formentini, biscuits I had baked. I also gave a few to the other couple who was there.
Cookies of the Garfagnana

Formentini comes from the Garfganana word for corn: formenton

After a delicious dinner followed by an elaborate meringue pudding, I departed feeling extremely well fed and as if I might not be able to eat for a week. A few days later I received a surprising email from the other couple telling me they had loved the cookies, had eaten them all before they arrived home (only a 10-minute drive away!) and asking for the recipe. Here it is.

Formentini (cornmeal cookies)

The name comes from the word formenton which means maize or corn in the Garfagnana dialect. The recipe is from a wonderful little book of traditional recipes of the Lucca region, Cucina di Lucchesia e Versilia, by Emiliana Lucchesi.

Quantity: masses (I make half a recipe)

600 g plain white flour
400 g corn meal
400 g sugar
225 g butter, gently melted
2 eggs
1 packet baking powder (16 g)
juice and grated rind of 1 orange

Sieve together the two types of flour and the baking powder and pour them onto a pastry board (spianatoia) in a mound. Make a hole in the centre and add the other ingredients. Knead everything well with your hands, adding enough milk to obtain a soft compact dough. Roll out with a rolling pin to a sheet about 3 mm thick. Before making the last pass with the rolling pin, sprinkle the dough with a little sugar and roll it into the surface of the dough. Cut into diamonds or rectangles (about 4 cm on a side), place on a buttered and floured baking sheet and place in a 220˚C oven for 10–15 minutes. They are done when they are just beginning to brown around the edges. Remove from the baking sheet immediately and leave to cool on a wire rack.

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