I spent two unforgettable summers in Italy as an art history student, eating wonderful Italian food and swooning over the ravishing art and fanciful architecture and the gorgeous vistas that surprised me at every turn. I also experienced the despair that accompanied the realization that, despite my best efforts, in the last two weeks of my summer I was unable to zip up the white pants that I had worn during the first two weeks after my arrival. I’m sorry now that I did nothing then to investigate the cooking of Italian cuisine. I was definitely into eating, but not into cooking, at all, at that time of my life.
Anyway, I was reminded of this Monday night at our Go Cooking session, as Chef Tim Doan from Lo Presti’s at Maxwell’s, prepared the dessert, a mascarpone mousse parfait, which incorporated 35 percent whipping cream, mascarpone and cream cheese with sugar and a sprinkling of Limoncello. (Well, there were berries, so at least you were getting your daily fruit ration.) As our guests were leaving, I gobbled up an entire dish of it (one of the perks of hosting) and then tried not to feel guilty over my descent into excess.
But I’m far from the only one who loves Italian food. In Hamilton, we live in Italian food heaven and our Go Cooking sessions reflect this — we all are aware of the awesome food in places such as La Piazza Allegra and Lo Presti’s at Maxwell’s and all of the other wonderful places that offer regional Italian dishes. A very quick look-up on the Internet led me to a list of over forty Italian restaurants in Hamilton. (To be fair, I guess it was Hamilton and Burlington, and it did include several pizza places — but, nevertheless –)
A quick survey of friends confirmed this bias toward Italian food and one of the reasons for its popularity that was cited over and over was its simplicity. Unlike classic French cuisine which really does require paying a lot of time and attention to construction, cooking Italian somehow seems faster and easier and more straightforward, so that anyone with a modicum of cooking experience can whip it up and make it good. This, of course, does not mean that it’s haphazard. There is a real respect for ingredients. One incident with pasta stands out in my mind when I learned the lesson of “al dente”. There were always a few Italian girls sharing our classes and one day we ate lunch at a small cafe. We all sat around a table and began to quaff down huge piles of rather mushy spaghetti, until one of the Italian girls tried the pasta and recoiled in horror.
“Why are you eating it?” she cried. “It’s not cooked properly.”
She immediately called over the server and explained the problem in Italian. There was no debate whatsoever. The food was quickly removed and in a few minutes replaced with fresh, perfectly cooked pasta.
The fruits and vegetables — the white peaches and asparagus and the incredible, juicy “tomatoey” tomatoes — always seemed to be the embodiment of freshness. I have never been to Italy in the winter, so I do wonder if this is a seasonal quality that disappears when winter arrives. Perhaps it also has to do with a time in which freezing and refrigeration were so expensive that fruits and vegetables were consumed when at the peak of their flavour. The regional dishes do reflect this close relationship to the conditions of weather and the countryside — from the risottos and polentas of the north where butter and cream are used prodigiously, to the tomato spiked sauces and garlic and olive oil dishes of the south.
I had been thinking about Italy and things Italian this week, because just before our Go Cooking session, I had seen a film called “The Great Beauty.” (“La Grande Bellezza“, part of the Art Gallery of Hamilton’s “I love film” series) In the film, the director (Paolo Sorrentino) underlines the corruption, moral emptiness and materialism of the idle rich by displaying their excesses in contrast to the backdrop of Rome which is seen as a magnificent and timeless cultural centre. But I couldn’t help thinking that the venality and boredom of the idle rich forms a part of all great cities. What remains in the mind, after seeing the film, is the sublime beauty of the ancient and resplendent city not the crassness of the upper classes. In effect, our sensory impressions prove to be far more powerful than any of our anxious ideological assumptions. I have a feeling that this goes for the food, as well.
So enough fretting and philosophizing; enjoy this recipe for Chef Tim’s mascarpone parfait.
Mascarpone Mousse Parfait with Sicilian Berries
from Chef Tim Doan, Lo Presti’s at Maxwell’s
1 litre 35 percent whipping cream
4 tbsp. sugar
8 oz mascarpone (room temperature)
4 oz cream cheese (room temperature)
1/4 tsp vanilla extract
6 tbsp confectionary sugar
1) Whip the cream and sugar in a bowl until you get stiff peaks. Keep cool.
2) Beat the mascarpone and cream cheese until smooth.
3) Add vanilla and powdered sugar to the cheese mixture and mix thoroughly.
4) Fold the whipped cream into the cheese mixture and layer between the berries.
2 cups your choice mixed berries with
Juice of one lemon and 2 tbsp. sugar
2 oz. Limoncello
Thought I should also mention that Peter Kline, our sommelier from Bacchus Sommelier Services, outdid himself with the accompanying wine: a Criollo Chocolate Raspberry Truffle Liquor, LCBO 356139