Artusi’s January: Biancomangiare
Artusi’s cookbook is probably the first book I pick up to check a recipe, which is not always convenient seeing as it was written in 1891 and some of the methods, ingredients and techniques described just can’t be produced the same way over a century later. But it is somehow still current. I mean, his recipes are still the best traditional recipes. And with his witty anecdotes and practical recipes, it is actually a very good read.
It’s an incredible book really because when Artusi found no one would publish his cookbook, known in English as Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well (with a charming introduction entitled “The story of a book that is a bit like the story of Cinderella”), he had to self-publish it, initially making only 1000 copies. But before long, it was one of the books that every Italian household had a copy of, along with the Italian classics, I Promessi Sposi and Pinocchio.
It was also the first book that defined “Italian cuisine” – he includes 790 recipes from all over the country, which is significant, as Italy had only recently been unified when the cookbook was published. Italians still didn’t consider themselves Italians. Their dishes belonged to their household, their town, or maybe their region, but had not ever before belonged to their country. Not even now.
So, in the spirit of Italy’s 150th year of unification this year, I want to dedicate a post with one regional Italian recipe once a month from Artusi’s book, most particularly to his seasonal menus that he has suggested at the back of his cookbook. Month by month, he lists two menus to choose from with suggestions for seasonal meals from a combination of regions.
Here is one of January’s menus, listed in Artusi’s typical way, according to the type of dish, followed by the recipe number:
Soups and broths. Nocciuole di semolina (semolina gnocchetti in broth) n.23 or Bomboline di patate (fried potato gnocchi in broth) no. 29
Boiled meats. Fish with a side dish no. 459
Stews. Sweet and sour “dolce forte” stew of wild boar or hare. No. 285
Entremets. Puff pastries filled with meat no. 161
Roasted meats. Roast beef with potatoes and salad no. 521 or 522
Cakes and Spoon Desserts. Margherita cake no. 576 o Bianco mangiare no. 681
Fruit. Pears, apples, mandarins, various dried fruit.
I was immediately drawn to the dish “Bianco mangiare” (now more commonly written, biancomangiare), which has its roots in medieval monasteries. I just love the name. It comes from the French, blanc manger, and refers mostly to the fact that the dish is white, thanks to one its consistent ingredients – almonds.
Today, as it must have in Artusi’s time, it is most popularly known as a Sicilian dessert, but the dish’s medieval ancestor was usually a savoury version made with almonds, bread, milk, flour and poached chicken to create a delicate dish which, without the presence of spices, sauces or strong flavours, also happened to be a suitable meal for someone sick or with a delicate stomach. Even today Italians still go by the mantra mangiare in bianco (literally, “to eat white”) meaning to eat plain food, such as plain white rice or pasta when feeling ill. The fact that the dish was also white lent it the symbolism of purity, making this dish popular on the monastery menu and the pilgrim route.
Artusi’s version is the Sicilian almond pudding, scented with orange blossom water, which gives it an unexpected, delicate perfume reminiscent of jasmine (if you cannot find this, a good substitute would be rosewater, and if you cannot get that, then settle for vanilla). It’s a very simple recipe for a very elegant dessert. I’ve updated a few of the measurements to metric cups and added a food processor to the works, but if you like you can try to do it with a mortar and pestle, as Artusi’s original recipe instructs!
Bianco mangiare, no. 681
- Whole almonds (preferably peeled), 150 grams
- Sugar, 150 grams
- Gelatine sheets (unflavoured), 12 grams
- Cream, 250 ml
- Water, 250 ml
- Orange blossom water, 2 tablespoons
Prepare the gelatine by leaving it to soak in a bowl of water. If you don’t have already peeled almonds, you can easily remove their skins by blanching them first in boiling water for 1 minute. Strain them, drain them on a cloth, and you’ll find you can peel the skins come right off. When you have perfectly white almonds, place them in a food processor (a hand blender also works) with a small amount of the water until they are coarsely ground, then add the rest of the water until it becomes a thick liquid (it will look like a bit like a vanilla milkshake at this point!).
Strain and squeeze the almond mixture in a clean, dry cloth over a bowl to separate the almond milk from the almond meal. Discard the almond meal left in the cloth. Place the almond milk in a saucepan together with the cream, sugar, and orange blossom water Drain the gelatine from the water where it has been soaking and add to the pan. Bring the mixture very carefully to the boil – and only let it simmer for a couple of minutes.
Take it off the heat and pour into ramekins. When they have cooled, put them in the fridge for four hours. To serve them, dip the ramekins into some hot water (or pass a cloth dampened in hot water around the outside) for a minute to warm the ramekin slightly from the outside, which should separate the puddings from the sides. Tip them upside down onto dishes and serve with some chopped almonds sprinkled on top (the crunchy, slight saltiness of the almonds is a great contrast) or a slice of Italian torrone or nougat.
Makes about 4 ramekin-sized puddings.