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Friday, October 21, 2011

Gargantuan Italian Meringue Cookies and Vino



I never thought I would ever say, “Not one more cookie or one more glass of wine,” (two of my favorite food groups), but I admit, those words go through my mind as I scan the kitchen on Via Ricasoli for a snack and see bags of amaretto cookies, lady fingers, biscotti, cantucci, and a wedge of panforte dusted with powder sugar. “Pasta, bread, pizza, pastries, desserts…no worry. You just walk it off,” everyone in-the-know seems to say. No one mentions that sweets are less expensive and more readily available than anything green or fruit-like. Sweets in Florence are the quick sugar-and-carb-rush partner to the caffeine jolt of espresso. Fruits and vegetables seem to be reserved as an accent color on a side dish at dinner. I have also heard that people drink wine at both lunch and dinner without getting drunk – another hard to grasp concept. But quickly, I find myself becoming a believer of carbs and vino as day-after-day of pasta, pizza, pastry, cookies, and wine leave my pants loose, my head clear, and me humming a happy tune. 

It’s impossible to ignore the lure of the Italian desserts. Whether or not you actually eat them or just admire their beauty, the mounds of sweets in the bakery window displays beckon you close like sirens of the sea. They are presented artfully, piled high and stacked side-by-side with shapes and colors creating tempting edible sculptures. The visual is an on-going surprise as the temporary installations morph throughout the day with the removal or addition of each sweet treat.

Biscotti, rugged sliced cookies, are displayed in baskets. They often contain nuts, such as pistachios or hazel nuts. They can also be plain or flavored with almond, chocolate, or orange. The dough is formed in a long log shape and baked in the oven. After baking, it is cooled slightly and then cut into slices, placed back on the baking sheet, and reenters the oven for the second baking. The result is a crunchy hard, slightly sweet, slice of goodness that Americans love to dunk in coffee or tea. The junior size version of biscotti is called “cantucci.”  Italians soften cantucci with a dip in golden colored Vin Santo (Wine of the Saints), a sinfully addicting after dinner combination. 

On the topic of sinful…there is the before mentioned sinful dessert (see post entry “Vin Santo Tiramisu”) and the today mentioned, sinful gargantuan meringues.  The only way to believe there could really be such a giant meringue cookie is to actually see one; the photos of Barbra show the portion size. Every bakery has their own version the cookie – some are high and top heavy, some are wide and flat without décor, and some are simply huge with chocolate dripping through every nook and cranny. The meringue cookie finds it way to my food category of “sinful” due to its simple nonthreatening ingredients – just sugar, egg whites, cream of tartar, and air – and their weight, lofty like cumulus clouds resting on an earthbound plate. What makes them doubly sinful is that both your eyes and your stomach tell you, “Hey man, there’s no way you’re going to eat that whole thing in a single try,” as the devil on your shoulder urges you on to victorious consumption.

In the bakery windows, the arbitrary uninhibited shapes of the meringue makes them snap shot worthy, while the carefully wrapped and cream-filled cannoli resembles a new baby swaddled in a designer blanket awaiting a professional photo session. The way the cookies rise and fall on the platters, intermingling with their cake-bread cousins, makes me want to shrink so small I can use them as a climbing wall, resting on a chocolate chip boulder or stretched out in a crevasse, laying my body against the rippled egg white walls. In another dessert vision, I easily imagine my petite friend Nancy Pearl on the fashion runway wearing a sleek cannoli-profile cocktail dress with a chocolate dripped meringue, tipped on the side of her head as a pill box hat, and sugar crystal chandelier earrings dangling down, almost touching her red frosting spaghetti straps.

Face it, Italian cookies are an art form that activates my imagination and brings me joy.

The devil on my shoulder asks, “One more glass of wine, one more cookie?”

 “Why not!” I respond, “I’ll walk it off bakery window shopping tomorrow.”
……………………….

It’s no surprise I’m drawn to the temporary food-art installations as they are reminiscent of the Italian “veduta paintings” of scenes with highly detailed landscape and architectural elements. There are so many sweets in the bakery window frame that it’s hard to focus on just one cookie, just as it is hard to select one tiny area in a veduta painting. Here’s the image of the veduta print in my living room. See the detail (from the lower left center of the painting). Just like a precious lumpy cookie in the pile, this painting detail is a treasure in itself. “Interior of a Picture Gallery with the Collection of Cardinal Silvio Valenti Gonzaga” by Giovanni Paolo Pannini, 1740 (note: work of art is in the public domain).

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