Beyond cannoli: At home, real Italians eat light desserts A soft touch: ices, fruits and biscotti

August 04, 1993|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

When Michele Scicolone decided to write a cookbook of Italian sweets, she didn't want her recipes just to produce Italian desserts -- she wanted them to result in Italian home-style desserts.

"You know, when people think of Italian desserts, they think of cannoli, some of those pastry concoctions. . . . But that's not what Italians eat at home," Ms. Scicolone says. The elaborate things, the cassatas (ice cream cake) and the sfogliatelles (cakes made of pastry, spiced cheese and fruit), come from the pasticceria, or bake shop, and are usually reserved for special occasions.

Instead, an Italian family is more likely to indulge in simple cakes, crostate (dessert tarts), or fruit, or ices with biscotti. Such easy-to-make and less heavy preparations are exactly the thing for Americans who like their sweets but are trying to cut back on fat and calories, Ms. Scicolone decided.

"But there was no collection of recipes for the kind of things I really liked," she says. "So I decided that was my job."

The result is "La Dolce Vita" (William Morrow and Co., $23), with recipes for Italian cookies, tarts, fruit dishes, frozen mousses, ice creams and sorbets -- all the simple pleasures Ms. Scicolone grew up with and found again on her trips to Italy.

"The book is based on my travels," she says, "the things I discovered, the regional specialties. We think we know Italian food, but we think of it as white sauce or red sauce -- that's very static." What she calls "real" Italian food is lighter and more imaginative than that.

Ms. Scicolone is at home in Italy not just because of her heritage, but because her husband is in the wine business, and they visit two or three times a year. "It's great fun," she says.

Ms. Scicolone has been cooking all her life, she thinks. "Even when I was a child, I would help with meals -- I would make the coffee. Italians are very food-oriented," she says. Both of her parents were good cooks. "Especially for holidays," she says, "everyone was involved in meal preparation."

She's somewhat mystified by people who say, as many do these days, that they "don't have time" to cook. "If they don't have time to cook," she says, "it means they don't have time to eat well." Frozen dinners and other convenience foods are full of artificial flavors and preservatives, and shy on robust flavor, she says. "Cooking is very enjoyable. . . . If we don't have time to do that, what are we doing? Maybe it's time to re-evaluate."

She also has no patience for the contention "no one eats dessert anymore."

"I don't think it's a good idea to forbid ourselves things," she says. And some desserts, such as the ices, "are perfectly healthy," she says. "Just eat a balanced diet. That's the way Italians eat."

*

Originally, Ms. Scicolone says, biscotti, which means twice-baked, was used for a kind of biscuit sailors took to sea because it would keep well. But later the term was applied to all sorts of cookies.

This recipe is for her favorite biscotti. Researching this recipe, she says, is what inspired her to write a cookbook of simpler Italian desserts.

Almond and hazelnut biscotti

Makes 8 dozen

1 1/2 cups toasted almonds

1/2 cup hazelnuts, toasted and skinned (see note)

4 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

5 large eggs, at room temperature

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled

2 cups sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons grated lemon zest

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Butter two large baking sheets.

In a food processor or blender, finely grind 1/2 cup of the almonds. Coarsely chop the remaining 1 cup almonds and the hazelnuts.

Combine the flour, baking powder and cinnamon. Stir in the ground and chopped nuts.

In a large bowl, whisk the eggs until frothy. Stir in the melted butter, sugar, and lemon zest until just combined. With a wooden spoon, stir in the dry ingredients until blended. The dough will be sticky.

Drop the dough by large spoonfuls onto the baking sheets to form four 12-inch strips, spaced about 4 inches apart. Smooth the tops and sides of each strip with a rubber spatula. Bake for 25 minutes, or until the strips are firm when pressed in the center. Remove from the oven but do not turn it off. Let the strips cool for 10 minutes.

Slide the strips onto a cutting board and, with a heavy knife, cut them diagonally into 1/2 -inch slices. Place the slices upright on the baking sheets. Bake for 20 minutes, until crisp. Transfer to wire racks to cool.

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