La zuppa della strega e la festa della Befana

When Stefano was young, there were no packaged cookies, biscuits or other breakfast treats in his home.  His mamma, Maria, prepared everything homemade.  Breakfast was crostata, or rustic olive oil cake called pizza dolce, with a small glass of warmed whole milk darkened with a splash of caffè.

Some mornings, Maria would prepare la zuppa della strega for Stefano, his brother Marco and his sister Debora. Crusty bread was soaked in warm milk, with a bit of espresso, sugar and sometimes cocoa to sweeten it a bit.  Frugality was behind this breakfast creation; it was a way to consume day-old bread.  But Maria made it fun by giving it a mysterious and peculiar name – zuppa della strega, witch’s soup.

Zuppa della Strega

Stefano has carried this tradition forth in the States.  On weekend mornings he’ll prepare a bowl of zuppa della strega for 8-year-old Luca, who devours it with the same delight that Stefano did when he was that same age.

Zuppa della Strega

January is the season of witches in Italy.  La Befana is a folklorish, witch-like old woman.  On the eve of January 6th, the holiday la festa della Befana, she rides on a broomstick from house to house and leaves treats inside stockings left out by Italian children   As the date suggests, this holiday has its origins in the Christian Epiphany, and it marks the end of the Christmas holiday.  Con l’Epifania, tutte le feste si porta via.

La festa della Befana is even more eagerly anticipated than Christmas by young Italian children.  When Stefano was young, the Befana would leave him and his brother and sister home baked treats, clementines, sugar candy that resembled black coal, and sometimes a little bit of chocolate.  The Befana was a universal symbol for motherhood, and so after waking up and finding their treats in the stocking, Stefano and his siblings would give auguri to their mother, much like one would on mother’s day.  There was plenty of teasing about the Befana‘s homely appearance, too.

As has happened to so many holidays, la festa della Befana has become more commercial since Stefano was young.  Stores theme-based stockings stuffed with chocolates and toys have largely replaced the homemade treats of Stefano’s youth.

Unchanged, though, is the large open air market celebrating la festa della Befana in Rome’s Piazza Navona.  During the weeks between Christmas and la festa della Befana, the piazza is filled with stalls selling candy, toys, miniature Befana dolls and more.  There are amusement park rides, live street artists and more to delight young and old alike.  Whenever we are in Rome over the holidays we make sure to bring the kids for a day of fun.

photo from www.roma.repubblica.it

photo from www.roma.repubblica.it

Photo from www.roma.repubblica.it

Photo from www.roma.repubblica.it

photo from www.bigodino.it

photo from www.bigodino.it

Here, the Italian cousins enjoy ciambelle in front of Piazza Navona’s Fontana del Moro on la festa della Befana in 2010.

Piazza Navona Festa della Befana

Ingredients for zuppa della strega
Day old bread
Milk
Sugar
Cocoa (optional)
Espresso (optional)

Directions
Break the bread into small pieces, and place them into a small saucepan.  Cover then with milk and bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally.  Once the milk comes to a boil, remove from heat and transfer into a bowl.  Add sugar to taste, and espresso or cocoa, or both.  Stir, and enjoy warm.

Fettuccine ai funghi porcini

Alas, 2012 is behind us.

Photo from Corriere della Sera

Photo from Corriere della Sera

CAPODANNO: IN 300MILA A CONCERTO FORI IMPERIALI A ROMA

Photo from Corriere della Sera

Although our celebration was more subdued than that of the Romans who filled  the streets for the city’s New Year’s Eve celebration, we nonetheless welcomed in 2013 with good company, a lot of laughs, and the obligatory midnight consumption of lenticchie e cotechino, lentil soup with a special, fresh sausage made of pork, which heralds good fortune in the coming year.

2012 certainly had its ups and downs!  We spent much of the year displaced from our house, while it was being rebuilt following the fire.  Rebuilding took enormous time, energy and patience, but happily we have returned, are nearly settled, and best yet, our turn-of-the-century Minneapolis home now has more closet space and a new kitchen to cook in.

Family in KitchenSummer of 2012 also marked a visit back to Rome, and a spectacular road trip through the northern Italian wine regions of Trentino-Alto Adige, La Valpolicella, and Piedmont and Le Langhe.  The trip ended as all trips should, with a few days at the sea in the Cinque Terre, with its amazing views and delicious seafood.  We really can’t complain.

2013 began just as pleasantly, on a cold Minneapolis day warmed by the visit of a friend and her charming baby daughter, a plate of fettuccine ai funghi porcini, paired very nicely with a glass of 2006 Martinenga Barbaresco, and a few leftover lentils thrown in for good measure.

Fettucine ai funghi porcini

Much more could be written about funghi porcini – their earthy texture and nutty flavor, their simple yet elegant quality.  However, on this New Year’s Day we chose to just enjoy them.

Buon Anno a tutti!

Ingredients
(for 4-6 servings)

Approx. 85 grams (3 ounces) dried porcini mushrooms
3 cloves garlic
1 stick (115 grams, 4 ounces) unsalted butter
1 cup dry white wine
Flat leaf Italian Parsley – optional
One package (approx. 500 grams) egg pasta – fettuccine, tagliatelle or pappardelle.  Or, make your own.
Sea salt

Pasta fatta in casa

Directions
Rehydrate the porcini mushrooms according to the instructions on the package.  We soaked ours in three cups of hot water for about an hour, stirring occasionally.

Funghi Porcini

Funghi Porcini

Melt the butter in a skillet over medium heat.  Slice the garlic lengthwise into quarters and sauté it in the butter.  Remove the mushrooms from their liquid and add them to the skillet with the butter and garlic.  Preserve the liquid from the mushrooms, and set it aside.  Add the white wine, and let the mixture simmer for about 15 minutes until the mushrooms become soft yet still firm, and the sauce turns creamy.  Remove the garlic.

Fettuccine ai funghi porcinifettuccine ai funghi porcini

In the meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil.  Toss a heaping handful of sea salt into the water, and add the pasta.  Cook until al dente according to the instructions on your package.  If you made your own pasta, the cooking time will be about 3-4 minutes; homemade egg pasta cooks much faster than store bought pasta.

Drain the pasta, and return it to the skillet with the mushrooms.  Stir together until mixed.  If needed, you can add a little of the water used to rehydrate the mushrooms.  Serve the pasta hot with a sprinkle of chopped flat leaf Italian parsley.  (We didn’t have any parsley on hand, and since it was New Year’s Day and stores were closed, we simply omitted it).

Fettuccine ai funghi porcini