If the nonna as master cook has become something of a stereotype (after all, excellent, thrifty, and industrious grandmas can be found in kitchens around the world), American chef Jessica Theroux at least approaches the topic with nuance and plenty of solid evidence.
In Cooking with Italian Grandmothers: Recipes and Stories From Tuscany to Sicily (Welcome Books, $40), Theroux documents a year spent traveling the country, gleaning the foodways of 12 accomplished cooks who shared their secrets, some of which were not confined to the cooking. Themes of hardship and resilience coexist with the tortellini and ricotta.
"The generation that I was dealing with had endured a lot of poverty . . . and two world wars," Theroux said. "So much of what these women do is nurture and love, but there also is that depth of coming through hard times. I wasn't expecting to find that, but I think it added to the richness of the experience."
Her book is equal parts travelogue, photo essay, and cookbook, with dozens of recipes - exotic, authentic, and accessible in equal parts - that she has reinterpreted for Americans. Each chapter zeroes in on one woman and the dishes she cooks from her respective region.
The personalities are distinctive, including generous and artistic Mary from Tuscany; tight-lipped Maria, a ricotta-maker from Sicily; and the gentle, generous spirit of very old Armida from Lunigiana, whom Theroux realized she would never see again.
For the record, not all the women she met were great cooks. Theroux laughingly recalled some "horror stories" of women (not documented in the book) who forced her to eat all their family dishes - "none of which were very good."
No surprise that Theroux's book emphasizes lessons she learned about paying attention to ingredients, especially local ones, and understanding the history of the dishes you are preparing.
But it's worth noting what Theroux named as the biggest and most surprising influence on her cooking.
"Cooking with love," she said firmly. "It's a very interesting concept. What I learned there was that . . . in the act of cooking, you're evoking the memory and thought of someone you love and transferring that to the food. It sounds very simple, but more than any technique I have ever learned it profoundly changes the food." "It's the simplest thing," Theroux said, "and it makes the biggest difference."
One of the Italian grandmothers that Theroux spent time with, Armida, made this cake (called la pignolata in Italian) for her when she was homesick. (See accompanying recipe.) "Armida thought that her favorite childhood dessert, a simple cake filled with pine nuts and lemon zest, was all I needed," Theroux said. "She was right."
Makes 8 servingsEndTextStartText
1 stick (1/2 cup) butter, softened
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
1/4 teaspoon finely chopped fresh rosemary
1 egg, separated, plus 1 egg yolk
1/8 teaspoon salt
11/4 cups flour
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons lightly toasted pine nutsEndTextStartText
1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Cream together the butter and 1/3 cup of the sugar in a medium bowl; stir in the lemon zest, rosemary, 2 egg yolks and salt. Stir in the flour and 1/2 cup of the pine nuts. (You may need to use your hands to form a workable dough.) Using your knuckles, press dough as evenly as possible into a buttered 9-inch round cake pan. Cover tightly with plastic wrap; let dough rest 30 minutes at room temperature or up to 24 hours in the refrigerator.
2. Just before baking, brush with egg white, sprinkle dough with remaining 2 tablespoons pine nuts and remaining 1 tablespoon sugar. Bake until the thin cake has turned a light nutty brown and pulls away from edges of the pan, 40-50 minutes. Set aside to cool; slice into thin wedges.