- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 4, 2005

Columbus Day was a time of celebration when I was a child in Newark, N.J. It was the first fall vacation day after school started and was eagerly awaited, even by my non-Italian classmates.

That was back before we celebrated Columbus Day on the second Monday of October. There was always a parade down Market Street, the Fifth Avenue of Newark, and all of the Italian-American societies and social clubs in the city marched to honor the official discoverer of America.

Years later, in my senior year of high school, the last opening night of the old Metropolitan Opera on West 45th Street — before it reopened at Lincoln Center the following year — fell on Columbus Day. My friend Rob and I took the bus to the city and got in line at around 7 a.m. for standing-room tickets.

About six hours later we were rewarded with our tickets (I think they cost $2.50), and we ran across the street for a bite at the automat. That evening we heard soprano Joan Sutherland in a new production of “Lucia di Lammermoor.”

“La Stupenda,” as her most devoted fans referred to Miss Sutherland, took 36 curtain calls after the famous mad scene.

I no longer take a day off for Columbus Day, but I watch a bit of the parade on television. It’s the one on Fifth Avenue in New York, and it still reminds me of seeing all my grandfather’s friends carrying banners emblazoned with the names of their hometowns in Italy.

If I have time, I cook an Italian meal for friends on the most Italian of American holidays, usually including a few homey specialties from my mother’s town in southern Italy.

Of course, I make a fancy dessert. I’m afraid I would have the first dinner party mutiny in history if I didn’t.

This year it’s going to be zuccotto alla ricotta, a dome-shaped molded dessert that I can begin to get ready up to two days ahead. I’ll bake the cake layer on the Thursday or Friday before, wrap it and store it in the refrigerator to make it easy to slice when I need it.

On Saturday or Sunday, I’ll line the mold with the cake slices and prepare the ricotta mousse filling. After the zuccotto is assembled and wrapped, it can safely sit in the refrigerator for a couple of days.

A few hours before serving, I need only unmold the dessert to a platter, spread the outside with whipped cream and sprinkle the cream with a few chopped pistachios. It’s a fitting tribute to Columbus and will prevent the dinner party mutiny for one more year.

Zuccotto alla ricotta

This elegant dessert uses Pane di Spagna to line a bowl that is then filled with a rich ricotta mousse. The chocolate and pistachios add crunch.

Butter for the mold

1 pan di Spagna, baked and cooled (recipe follows)

White rum for sprinkling over pan di Spagna

FILLING:

16 ounces ricotta or 1 15-ounce container

1 cup confectioners’ sugar

3 tablespoons white rum

1 tablespoon anisette

1 envelope gelatin

3 tablespoons (about 1 ounce) chopped bittersweet chocolate

3 tablespoons (about 1 ounce) chopped pistachios

1 cup heavy whipping cream

FROSTING:

1 cup heavy whipping cream

2 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons chopped pistachios

Prepare a 1-quart bowl by buttering it and lining it with plastic wrap.

Slice a disk the size of the top of your bowl from the pan di Spagna and cut the rest into 2 large wedges.

Cut wedges into thin slices and line the bowl with them. Sprinkle with rum. Reserve the disk to cover the filling later on.

Combine ricotta and confectioners’ sugar in food processor and process until smooth, about 2 minutes.

Combine 3 tablespoons rum and anisette and sprinkle gelatin over the surface. Allow it to soak until liquid is absorbed, then place over simmering water to melt.

Whisk the dissolved gelatin into the ricotta mixture, then stir in the chocolate and pistachios. Whip cream and fold it in.

Pour filling into cake-lined mold and cover with reserved disk of pan di Spagna. Cover with plastic wrap and chill until set, at least 6 hours.

Remove plastic wrap, invert a platter over bowl and invert the zuccotto onto platter. Remove bowl.

Whip cream with sugar and frost outside of zuccotto with it. Sprinkle with chopped pistachios.

Serve cake shortly after finishing or store unfrosted cake covered in the refrigerator for up to two days. (Spread outside of cake with whipped cream and sprinkle with pistachios just prior to serving.) Serves about 12.

PAN DI SPAGNA:

The jury is still out on whether the name of this Italian sponge cake means “Spanish bread,” which is the literal translation, or whether Spagna is really a corruption of spugna, or sponge. No one will ever know for sure, but fortunately the cake is just as delicious either way.

Butter for the baking pan

4 large eggs, separated

3/4 cup sugar, divided

1 teaspoon vanilla

Pinch salt

cup all-purpose flour (spoon flour into dry-measure cup and level off)

cup cornstarch

Prepare a 9- or 10-inch round layer pan, 2-inches deep, by buttering it and lining the bottom with parchment or waxed paper cut to fit.

Whisk together yolks, half the sugar and vanilla in bowl of a heavy duty mixer.

Whip with the whisk attachment on medium speed until aerated and pale yellow, about 3 minutes.

In a clean, dry mixer bowl whip egg whites and salt with whisk attachment on medium speed until whites are very white and opaque. Increase speed to high but not highest and whip in remaining sugar in a stream.

Continue to whip whites until they hold a firm, dull peak. Use a large rubber spatula to fold yolks into whites.

Put flour and cornstarch in a strainer or sifter, and in three additions sift over and fold into the batter.

Make sure to keep scraping bottom of the bowl with the spatula to keep the flour from accumulating there and causing lumps.

Pour batter into prepared pan and smooth top. Bake Pan di Spagna on middle rack of preheated 350-degree oven for 30 to 40 minutes, or until it is well risen and feels firm when pressed gently with palm of hand.

Immediately run a small knife or spatula around side of pan to loosen the layer.

Unmold the layer but leave paper stuck to it. Turn layer right side up and cool it on a rack.

Remove paper. Double wrap layer in plastic and refrigerate up to 5 days or freeze.

Makes one 9- or 10-inch round layer.

TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES

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