The Food Maven Diary
Entry: Cecilia Visits, Leaves a Date Cake Recipe
Baronessa Cecilia left just a few days ago. She stayed for three weeks, kept me busy here in New York, although she did take two little side trips - one weekend in Burlington, Vermont, to visit her cousin Millie, who has lived in the states most of her adult life, and one weekend in Connecticut, where she has an old family friend (Luciana was the flower girl at her mother's wedding 73 years ago) who took her up to Sharon to visit with her son, who lives there with his wife and children. Needless to say, Cecilia the antique-a-holic, had to visit the big cooperative antique store in Millerton, New York, near Sharon, where she found (what an eye!) a cameo depicting Naples and Mt. Vesuvius, plus a very fine miniature oil painting (perhaps museum-worthy) of Queen Carolina of Naples. Cecilia has a connection to her. She was Napoleon's sister, and wife of Joachim Murat, the brother-in-law that Napoleon-appointed king of Naples. And - here's the Cecilia connection - Murat is the king who granted the Barone title to Cecilia's husband's ancestor, who bred horses for the royalty. (Cecilia still breeds horses, and produces jumping shows.) Needless to say, both items were an incredible bargain, given the high value of the Euro compared to the pitiful dollar.
We also got Cecilia out of the city to visit with Ron and Patricia Napoli in Greenwich, Connecticut. They have attended Cook at Seliano twice. We've gotten to know them very well, and have become very fond of them, and we were very excited about being invited and eating Patricia's lunch, knowing what a good cook she is, and what gracious hosts we knew they would be. I wasn't as well-prepared for their fabulous house and gardens as I was for the food. The Napolis are modest people. They wouldn't brag about their things. But the house and gardens were gorgeous, filled with gorgeous furniture and objects. Cecilia must have said a dozen times, "I feel like I am in movie."
Instead of telling you the details about the house, however, as much as I am tempted to (When I watch a movie, I often comment "nice furniture." It's a joke among my friends.), I feel it is more necessary to tell you about the menu:
In the less formal of two living rooms, we drank Prosecco and nibbled little packages of fresh goat cheese and fig jam wrapped in prosciutto. Addictive! I'll do that one day myself. There were also cubes of four different cheeses, which I tried to keep my hands off but couldn't because they were cheeses that I didn't know. In cases like that, I rationalize my lack of will power as "research." There were also some crisp palmiers - you know, puff pastry cookies - with savory flavors, not sweet.
At the big table, covered in a Provencal print cloth, in their vast more-or-less French country looking kitchen, we sat down to a truly sublime baked lasagna with both porcini and cultivated mushrooms, a little béchamel to glue it all together, prosciutto, and grated parmigiano.
Of course, there had to be TWO main courses. Patricia had long-ago sent me the recipe for one, a meat roll stuffed with ground meat served at room temperature with green sauce. I now know why she wanted to share it. She also served sausage baked with grapes and those small flat onions that are called cippollini. Patricia also made her own Sicilian caponata, and a shredded radicchio salad with walnuts. I don't usually like radicchio salad, but I loved this one for some reason. Maybe it was the nuts, and her perfectly balanced dressing.
For dessert, she baked a three-layer strawberry shortcake frosted with fresh whipped cream embellished with fresh strawberries, Tour de force!
Ron was very generous in opening a bottle of wine we knew was very precious, and delicious. It's called Montevetrano and it is made by Cecilia's childhood friend, Sylvia Imperato. Montevetrano was called one of the world's 100 best wines by Robert Parker, the wine guru, and it has since soared in price. Sylvia doesn't make much wine, so the price is a function of limited supply and great world-wide demand.
Ron had his bottle in his cellar before he knew of the Cecilia connection, and then we all visited with Sylvia, tasted her wine on her private terrace, facing the green hills of Salerno, and ate lunch in her sister Anna's dining room, next to the main house. I have to say that even without those memories, Ron's bottle of Montevetrano would have been pretty spectacular. Although Sylvia's aim is to make a Bordeaux-style wine, hers is half Aglianico, the important red wine grape of Campania, and the local character comes through. It's not a stern Bordeaux heavy on highly tannic Cabernet, but a big, lush, laid-back wine, easy but elegant drinking on a lazy spring afternoon in Greenwich.
Cecilia did some significant shopping while in New York, but she left behind some stuff, too, including a clogged bathroom sink. I am waiting for the plumber right now. She also left me with two fabulous cake recipes, one a Date-Nut Cake/Confection, something her 89-year-old Aunt (Zia) Delia has been making for decades. The other is a sort of pound cake made entirely in the food processor. Cecilia found this recipe among her mother's papers after her mother passed away last year at age 94. Signora Elvira collected recipes almost until the end. And she always liked to be up-to-date; hence the food processor recipe.
Here's Delia's recipe. Both will be in my next book, "The Big Book of Southern Italian Food & Wine." My publisher doesn't want me giving the whole book away before publication, so I am offering only one of the two recipes. This cake is so easy and good I have no made it four times - in only two weeks. The other day, I didn't have enough dates, so I used half dates and half prunes. It was equally fabulous.
ZIA DELIA'S DATE-NUT CAKE
Makes 1 7 by 11-inch cake, serving at least 12
4 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups sugar
5 tablespoons all-purpose flour
12 ounces dried dates, pitted and cut into 1/2-inch pieces (about 2 cups), or 2 cups mixed diced dates and similarly diced dried figs
12 ounces (3 cups) walnuts, crushed with your hand into large pieces
Cut a piece of parchment paper to fit, with much excess, a 7- by 11-inch baking pan, a size that is sometimes called a "brownie pan." Don't attempt to fit the paper inside it yet.
Place a rack in the lower third of the oven. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
In a large mixing bowl, with a table fork, beat the eggs with the vanilla and sugar until well blended.
Stir in the dates and walnuts until well mixed.
Sprinkle the flour over the fruit and nut mixture and blend in very well.
Place the parchment paper over the pan and pour the batter into the pan. The weight of the batter will hold down the paper. As you spread the batter evenly to fill the pan, the paper will give way and fit to the pan. Don't worry if the corners are a little irregular.
Bake for about 45 minutes, until the top is nicely browned and the cake feels solid to the touch.
Cool in the pan for at least 20 minutes before unmolding. Pull off the parchment paper while the cake is still warm. Finish cooling the cake with the sticky bottom up.
Cut into small pieces, approximately 1 1/2-inch squares. Or cut into 1-inch by 2-inch bars or, truly, into any size you like.
The cake can be served warm, when it is particularly good with whipped cream or a scoop of vanilla or, say, dolce de leche, caramel, or coffee ice cream. It is much better, however, at room temperature. And it improves with a few days of age, when the surface becomes crisper but the center remains very moist. But it is so delicious it may not last that long.
Store at room temperature, in a tin or wrapped in aluminum foil, not plastic.