I made Marcella’s ciambella cake tonight. It’s exactly what an Italian dessert is supposed to be: simple, not too sweet, and made to have with a good cup of coffee.
Marcella Hazan died this week. People always refer to her as “The Julia Child of Italian Cuisine,” and although I don’t think it’s quite fair to lump them in together, as they were both formidable women in their own right, it’s true. But whereas Julia was just visiting France, Marcella was Italy. She was born and raised there, moved away reluctantly for love, and landed in a country where she couldn’t find anything that tasted like home. She also couldn’t cook, nor could she speak English, but she figured them both out (the latter from watching the Brooklyn Dodgers on television). She was willing to teach other people what she learned.
I like Julia Child just fine, but I’m not wild about overly fussy, self-important French cuisine. I mean, who doesn’t love a 15 page recipe now and then? Just for the sport of it? But give me Italian, done Marcella’s way, every time. Marcella starts her cookbook by explaining the geography of Italy and how each microclimate produced different foods which grew into different regional cuisines, so that there is no one “Italian” food. Instead, Italian cooking is about the process: finding the freshest, best-quality ingredients you can find, and preparing them as simply as possible.
I’ll get in trouble for this next part, from all of my Francophile friends, but it’s also about attitude. The New York Times just published an essay about France’s cultural ennui; it pointed out that the French people, as a collective group, aren’t worried that they aren’t still superior to the rest of the world in pretty much every respect. They’re just feeling fragile because the rest of the world doesn’t seem to believe it these days. France has nice scenery, nice art, and nice food. Know who also has nice scenery, art, and food? Hundreds of other countries. JOYFUL countries. Come-join-us-at-the-table countries. Countries where the light is magic and the color palette changes with every town and the people look like they’d pour you a drink and ask about your family. Countries like Italy.
So, I made Marcella’s cake, because I had the five or six ingredients lying around the house. I’ll probably have some for breakfast with my coffee. What I really love, though, is her tomato sauce, because it’s the best there is. Four ingredients, and it will rock your world. The best ingredients you can find, prepared as simply as possible, so that nothing’s overcomplicated and each part shines. It’s a good lesson to remember, just in general.
Well played, Marcella.