June 17, 2014

A Venetian Crema with Almonds to Celebrate Two Years of Italian Table Talk

If I had to pick a sweet I am particularly fond of – and I am not fond of any sweets in particular – I would go for something creamy. Pannacotta, gelato, zabaione. Something where the the airy texture can make up for the sweet punch. 

It must be in my genes. The women in my family have never been great pastry chefs, yet they could always crack a good pudding. My mum's mum, for example, was known for making the best zuppa inglese in town, with layers of chocolate and marsala cream between cookies drunk with alchermès. My mum for her part, although she has never been the most keen baker, managed to pick up her mum's crema-making skills. So, whenever there is an occasion requiring un dolce – something sweet – she would usually skip the baking altogether, and go for what she was well-known for in our family: tiramisù. Such occasions were usually birthdays and the random ferragosto dinner, which, being on 15th August, automatically called for a chilled dessert. 

This is how my brother and I grew up – with tiramisù as a birthday cake, and the rich, palate-coating sweetness of crema al mascarpone mingled with the bitter accents of unsweetened cocoa and coffee; and with the idea of cake being so soft that it could be tackled with a spoon. Year after year, twice a year at least, our fridge has been dominated by the comforting presence of a large glass pan with a dark, powdery top barely able to cover the overflowing pale yellow cream. 


My favourite part about it all was easily the crema. In more than an occasion, I begged my mum to change her well-seasoned recipe to include a higher crema-to-cookie ratio – I begged until I was listened to, or rather, I was allowed to supervise the making of the cake. The image of mum making crema al mascarpone for tiramisù is so sharply ingrained in my mind. First she would divide the yolks from the whites, and whisk them with sugar until pale yellow; then she would top this with heavy mascarpone; finally, she would fluff the whites to soft peaks, and fold them into the cream, gently, patiently. Only after all the layers had been piled, and the last avalanche of cream falling on the savoiardi was dusted in black, powdered cocoa, I was getting to do what I had been waiting for the whole time: cleaning the bowl and the wooden spoon of any little bit of cream attached to them.

I was observing this, and without even knowing it, I was actively making space in my mind for these memories.



I have never made crema before, neither for tiramisù nor to be served as it is, topped with nougat or amaretti, or even just berries, and served in cups like you would find in many restaurants around Veneto. But the occasion was just right – and the theme called for it. Two years ago, together with three talented ladies with really diverse backgrounds yet with a common passion for Italian food, we decided to start this series of posts dedicated to authentic, regional Italian cuisine – with stories of real life and recipes from real kitchens. We called it Italian Table Talk and it is now at its second anniversary!

We chose to celebrate with something sweet, and to do so with a beloved theme for all of us - dolci al cucchiaio (literally, sweets by the spoon, or spoon desserts), a category including all desserts which are soft, creamy and almost spoonable – from chocolate puddings to zabaione. Emiko made a beautiful semolina pudding from her beloved Artusi book, topped with a loquat coulis; Giulia went for the classic yet evergreen chocolate pudding; and Jasmine made a crème caramel, something French-sounding yet ingrained in the Italian culinary traditions, particularly in the North.

As for me, I made my crema repeating the same gestures my mum used to perform in those days: the whisking, the folding, the chilling – a beautiful exercise in recalling flavours and memories.




Venetian Crema with Almonds (Crema de Mandorle in Giasso)

The recipe comes from Mariù Salvatori De Zuliani's brilliant book on Venetian food. This crema was traditionally eaten during gatherings in the best Venetian villas, served in Murano glass cups with a little handle on the side and a matching plate. It is a rich, luscious, intensely sweet egg-based custard jewelled with crunchy caramelized almonds – all ingredients testifying the wealthy origins of the dish. It is, of course, intensely sweet, thick and velvety, as any good custard should be – yet the presence of the almonds breaks its innate thickness and donates texture and crunch. Enjoy it topped with an amaretto cookie for prettiness, or with baicoli if you can get hold of them – this would be the most traditional way of eating it. And if you wish to break the sweetness with a light sour note, try to pair it with raspberries – a welcomed change from the classic. 

 Serves 6

For the croccante:
60g almonds, roughly chopped
100g caster sugar
1/2 lemon, juiced

In a small saucepan, whisk the sugar and the lemon juice. Place the pan on the stove over medium heat and keep whisking until the sugar starts bubbling. At this point, add the almonds. Stir to coat with the caramel, and allow the mixture to become dark brown and gluey. At this point, transfer it over a clean marble greased with some butter. Spread evenly and allow to cool before breaking into pieces.

For the custard:
4 egg yolks
120g caster sugar
4 tbsp potato or corn starch
1/4 L (1 cup) milk, hot
1/4 L (1 cup) double cream

In a large bowl, whisk the yolks and the sugar until the latter has dissolved and the yolks turn fluffy and pale yellow, about 10 minutes. Sift in the starch and keep whisking energetically, until fully incorporated.
Slowly pour the hot milk over the egg mixture while still whisking. Transfer it to a large saucepan and heat it over very low heat. The custard will take about 15 minutes to fully set, and during this time you will have to keep whisking it to avoid burning or sticking. The custard is done when it visibly thickens and turns darker in colour. Remove from the heat and transfer to a glass bowl to cool.
Only when the custard has reached room temperature, whip the cream to firm peaks. Fold gently into the custard, together with the bits of croccante, until fully combined. Transfer the custard to individual cups and refrigerate for 4 hours before serving.

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6 comments:

  1. Happy 2 year anniversary/birthday (?)! As someone with a very sweet tooth, this looks equally delicious :-)

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    1. Thank you Kate – I am very happy there are people with a sweet tooth on this planet (my husband is one of them) as I can get to make them cream and other sweet things I like to make more than to eat. If it was for me, I wouldn't even have the sugar in my cupboard and there would only be space for salted nuts! :)

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  2. I love this, Val, just my sort of dessert and I am really loving your photographs for this post too. I can just imagine the little Murano cups and the setting of the Venetian villas - beautiful.

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    1. Thank you, E! I have to admit that I had to load it with tart raspberries to make it of my liking – you know me – and it worked! :)

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  3. Replies
    1. it's actually pretty easy and so very satisfying – good for summer as it is a chilled dessert! :)

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