Taralli – My Culinary “Mission Impossible”

24 07 2010

What’s a taralli? Well, aside from delicious, this is the definition Wikipedia gives is this.

Taralli are an Italian snack food, common all over the southern half of the Italian Peninsula. A cracker similar in texture to a bread stick or a pretzel, taralli can be sweet or savory. Sweet taralli are sometimes glazed with sugar. Savory taralli may be flavored with onion, garlic, sesame seeds, poppy seeds, fennel, pepper or just salt. Sweet and plain taralli are often dunked in wine.

I had seen some of the sweet ones a while back and finally weakened enough to go out and buy some – something I usually don’t do because they’re expensive and, given my major weakness for baked goods, they don’t last long. I had, however, gotten the image of me enjoying a of couple glazed taralli and my morning coffee so ingrained in my mind that the obvious downsides didn’t faze me. Off I went to the closest grocery store – a small independently owned place where I always, Always, ALWAYS see sweet taralli… except for when I show up looking for them. I went to the next nearest grocery store – a Stop & Shop – and still no sweet taralli. If I’d have wanted the peppercorn ones, I’d have been set, which just made the situation more annoying.

Before I go on, allow me to explain why not finding a single lone tarallo (singular form of taralli) is such a shock. I live in New Haven county Connecticut – well within the metro-area where Italian-American everything is commonplace. The town I live in does not have its own high school – it’s part of a district – but it does have not one, but two places to get good pizza. If I’m honest, I could’ve driven to an Italian bakery and bought the taralli. There are a couple good bakeries around, but they aren’t as close as those grocery stores were and I was getting sick of driving around with nothing to show for it, so I went back home to go on an online recipe hunt. I had decided to try my hand at making them.

Traditional Italian baking is usually pretty easy – it can be time-consuming sometimes, but it’s not a difficult process as a rule. There are often few ingredients and the variety comes from the addition of different flavorings and such as opposed to an entirely different process for each recipe. A perfect example is when you walk into a coffee shop and you see seven different kinds of biscotti. The difference is not in how they’re made – they are all biscotti – but in the flavoring. One’s almond, one’s lemon, one’s dipped in chocolate, ect, ect… The difficulty comes in finding traditional Italian recipes. No one writes cookbooks full of these kinds of recipes. You find books with really elaborate versions of some of these things or, more irritatingly, how to fake Italian food with things like ketchup and canned soups. That, in my opinion, is an abomination. I’m cool with all sorts of things in life, but do NOT try convincing me that Campbell’s tomato soup even remotely resembles my homemade marinara sauce. I will think less of you as a person if you do.

My recipe hunt yielded a few good results most notably an italian food blog turosdolci.wordpress.com which is full of some delicious-looking recipes as well as beautiful shots of Italy. My urge to book a flight was almost as strong as my urge to bust out the baking utensils. Baking won only on economic grounds. Anyway I found this post about taralli and this post that was my inspiration – a sweet taralli made with red wine. I gathered my ingredients and about 35 minutes later my home smelled like heaven and I had taralli that are far better than anything I could’ve bought. Me being who I am I had to fiddle with the recipe a little. I used a Ruby Port instead of a red wine and the results are fabulous. Whatever brilliant soul decided, ages ago, that wine belonged in a baked snack deserves to be canonized. I also showed my mother the site and now she’s got baking plans that stretch to Christmas after seeing a few recipes for biscotti and other treats. I have plans to attempt some gluten-free versions of these things. My cousin is allergic to gluten – a cruel fate in a family like mine – and I’ve had a fair bit of success with substituting in gluten-free flours with little to no difference in taste. It’s health food everyone wants to eat. I’ll keep everyone appraised of the results of my gluten-free experimenting.

I will close this post with a warning regarding these snacks – they are addictive. To say I’ve eaten more than my fair share is an understatement to say the least. It isn’t just me, or the rest of the humans in the house for that matter, Tosca, my shiba inu, is now a fiend for them. She will climb, jump, and do everything else in her power to get a hold of some. This is unusual because she isn’t generally one to do this… unless you leave grilled beef unattended, and then it’s over. Tosca is an accomplished taralli thief.

I will try to post more good recipes (or links to good recipes) in the future.

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My Quest for Books…

18 03 2010

… is unending and increasingly difficult. Allow me to explain.

I like books NOBODY reads.

Life would be so much more simple if I enjoyed those ever-present romance novels with the half-naked, kilt-clad, long-haired men on the cover, but by and large, I’m not a fan. Don’t get me wrong, every now and then I’ll pick one up, but I really have to be in the mood for a paper-thin plot and gratuitous euphemisms for body parts. I prefer more substantive reading – philosophy, biographies – most of them international political figures and even more of them liberal in ideology, and fiction thats plot can’t be summed up in diagrams. This all sounds easy enough to find and it was until I decided to complicate my life by reading in Italian and French. I’ve studied French, though not very seriously, for many years and I have a reasonable amount of skill with Italian – mostly thanks to my study of music but I did take some classes. If, and given my current financial status that is a huge if, I ever have the slightest hope of furthering my educational goals by studying for my Master’s and possibly even contemplating a Ph. D in my chosen field of music history, I have to be able to read and understand German, French, and/or Italian. Teaching myself German – the written language and grammar as well as the spoken word – seems like too much to ask, so I’ve decided to continue with what trained teachers have started. I have always been better at reading than writing and worlds better at both of those than I am at speaking, so this task is not as hard as it sounds. I had talked about my musically based goals with Tony Amato, the artistic director of the Amato Opera Company, before it closed and he suggested that, before spending a bunch of money to relearn things I have already been taught, I should buy a few books – even if I have to start with children’s books – in Italian and French and read them. He said that, at the very least, I would be able to better gauge my skill level so I didn’t sign up for the wrong class. That all sounds great, but there’s one problem with this blissfully simple plan – where do you find books in the US that aren’t in English, Spanish, or Japanese?
English and Spanish are spoken everywhere and Japanese is “the cool language” to study, (Yes, I have heard it described that way.) but finding books written in French and more so with those in Italian – even on Amazon.com – is a lesson in patience coupled with a dose of luck. Once you find them, they’re also expensive which is no fun. Amazon.fr (French Amazon) is well-stocked and has good prices, but shipping costs are kind of high since it’s an international order and it takes a while. I found one site – IBS.it – that specializes in Italian books, but it’s expensive and also an international order. In short, this is proving harder than I’d first anticipated. That’s why my quest is now a blog post. I figured that if anyone happens to read this, maybe that someone might be able to point me in the direction of some livres and romanzi. Let me know if you have a possible source.

I’ll also see if there are any well-stocked international bookstore in Manhattan that carry French and Italian contemporary fiction – my quarry of choice. I can think of three Japanese bookstores, but none that stock any western european languages other than Spanish which, as I mentioned before, is everywhere. I would love a trip to the city and books are as good an excuse as any.