In Italian cookery terms, when you cook something “in fricassea”, it means that you add egg yolks that you have already mixed with lemon juice to a hot, cooked dish, at the very end, generally off the heat. The yolks thicken and become a velvety, lemony sauce that enrobe the other ingredients. The trick, obviously, is not to scramble them.It is a Northern Italian cookery technique that always delivers a subtle elegance to the final dish. Typically, it is rabbit, veal, chicken and lamb, that are cooked “in fricassea” , the meat first being braised “in bianco”, without tomatoes. Some vegetables too can be cooked “in fricassea”: artichokes, peas, mushrooms, carrots, courgettes, broad beans and asparagus.
Update May 2022: it is that time of the year again – courgette bonanza. Time to make scarpaccia, both as a dessert and as a savoury tart.
It took a leap of faith and my avid curiosity to try this cake: could a basic sweet batter and some grated courgettes make a good cake? No nuts, no sultanas, no spices…really? A resolute “yes!” is the answer.
This is a most unusual and excellent cake come dessert: delicate, plain and light, but not at all boring, with a delicious custardy quality. Burnished golden outside, yellow with specks of green inside, it is also pretty. Scarpaccia means “nasty/old shoe” and no one really knows why such an uninspiring name; it is possibly something to do with the appearance of this dessert: a genuine scarpaccia should be a fairly thin and crusty affair – like an old, over-worn shoe. It is the contrast between the sugary and crusty exterior (due to a good drizzle of olive oil) and the custardy, vanilla scented interior that make this unposessing looking dessert sing.
A mystery cake: it is called mantovana, meaning from Mantua (in Lombardy) but it is in fact a speciality of the Tuscan town of Prato. It is a buttery and eggy cake with a tight, tender crumb, subtly perfumed with lemon zest and topped with almonds and pine nuts. There is no baking powered in the batter and this makes for a rather flat cake. It is one of those cakes that Italian 19th century cook books would define as da credenza, i.e. a dresser cake, one that that home cooks would keep in a dresser, on a platter or on a cake stand, covered by a napkin – as I do. It really is ideal with a mid morning coffee or with an afternoon tea.
It is very easy, and immensely pleasurable, to fall into the spell of the Mediterranean – the vibrant colours, the shimmering sea, the warmth of its people, the gnarled olive trees, the intoxicating sweetness of its figs, the lusciousness of its vegetables…
When it comes to Italian food then, there is a misconception that it is all olive oil, garlic, basil and tomatoes, so to speak. In fact, at least one third of the Italian peninsula, from the plains of Emilia Romagna up to the Northern Alps, is bathed in butter and lard and cooks much of its food, at least traditionally, “in bianco” – that is to say, without tomatoes. This homely supper dish, which emanates from the Emilia Romagna repertoire, makes the point.