December 17, 2008

Italialicious Bananattone

I know this is not the traditional recipe you might have been expecting, however it’s very original and full of flavor! Also, making traditional panettone is a long process, and then you have to wait for the panettone to mature. On the other hand, my bananattone needs less yeast expertise, and you can both bake it and enjoy it on Christmas day (although it does require 1 overnight rising process)!

Ingredients (makes 2 loaves)
4 very ripe bananas, mashed
5 ¼ cups bread flour
9 Tbsp honey
¾ cup milk
2 ½ tsp yeast
2 cups walnuts, raisins and candied orange and lemon peel
2 large eggs
1 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
½ tsp orange essence (or orange blossom water)
½ cup olive oil
½ cup sugar
1/4 milk and 1 tsp sugar to brush your loaves

On Christmas Eve

Dissolve 2 Tbsp honey in a cup of warm milk. Add the yeast and stir. Let it rise for a couple of minutes in a warm place. Meanwhile, mix the dry ingredients: flour and sugar. Mix the mashed bananas with about 7 Tbsp honey (I’m sure 7 Tbsp honey has an equivalent in cups, but Tbsp is what I used, so…). Add the vanilla extract and the orange essence to the banana mixture (you can also use 1 ½ tsp of fiori di Sicilia extract). Reserve the banana mixture. Add the two eggs to the flour and sugar mixture and beat it using a stand mixer. While beating this flour mixture, add the eggs. Beat until little crumbs form. Now it’s time to add the active yeast to the flour. Add olive oil and, finally, the banana mixture. Beat until everything is incorporated and you get a nice dough. Let it rise for about 1 ½ hours.

After wrapping your presents ;) , punch the dough down. Sprinkle the nuts and fruit with a couple of tablespoons of flour. Add the nuts and fruit to the dough. Add a pinch of salt. With a stand mixer, knead the dough for at least 25 minutes. Put the dough in two bread molds – or several muffin molds, if you want bananattone muffins – and brush the top with sugared milk (add a touch of orange essence to the milk too). Let it rise in the fridge overnight.

On Christmas day

Brush your bananattoni (plural) with warm sugared milk (again, with a nice touch of orange essence). Let the bananattoni rest at room temperature for about 1 hour. Then bake in a 375F preheated oven for about 30-35 minutes until nice and golden brown. And that’s it! HAPPY HOLIDAYS!!!!


When putting the dough into the molds, you should do it until you reach half the height of the mold. Before baking, your bread should have risen all the way to the height of the mold.

I’m very fond of the texture you get with my recipe. It’s fluffy and you get a really good substitute for real panettone. So, it was a smart idea! The cost you pay is a loss of aroma, because bananattone smells like bananas!

Finally, I must say I got inspired by Annie Brocoli and her Nanas Bananas!

Posted by Daziano at 10:01 PM | 17 comments  
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December 15, 2008

In search for a crèche and starting a Christmas tradition

Once upon a time, Christmas Eve dinner in Italy was very light, people went to the Midnight Mass, and then when they came home they exchanged gifts. A traditional Christmas in Italy nowadays involves the cenone di natale or huge Christmas Eve dinner with your family. You wait until midnight, and when midnight arrives the first thing you do is to put Gesù Bambino (Baby Jesus) in your crèche. Then, you exchange gifts with your family. And then, you continue eating! On Christmas day you don’t stop eating: now it’s time for friends to come over and have a huge lunch together – il pranzo di Natale!

Crèche or Nativity scenes (presepe or presepio in Italian) are a deep Italian tradition for Christmas. In fact, one can say it’s the most Italian among Christmas traditions since it was Saint Francis of Assisi who was the first to think of recreating the birth of baby Jesus (even though Neapolitans claim they had the first presepe about 250 years before Saint Francis’ one… well, in any case everything is connected to the Roman and Etruscan tradition of lares). Then, each region developed its very own tradition: wooden presepi in the northern regions (namely around Genoa), finely sculpted presepi in Bologna, ornate presepi with local products in Sicilia, and the complex and extremely realistic presepi in Naples. Presepi viventi (living crèches), where costumed people recreate the Nativity scene, are found all around Italy too: I played Saint Joseph when I was a kid!

I spent my first Christmas in North America in Philadelphia, and since the presepe was so important to me I needed to have one. But I wasn’t aware how difficult it was to get one. Before coming to North America, I lived in Chile where some traditions are very close to the ones you can find in Italy. In Chile, you have a huge dinner on Christmas Eve with your family, then you have a huge lunch on Christmas day using leftovers from the night before, and you always have a pesebre or crèche next to the Christmas tree. And you can buy these Nativity scenes all around the city; you can even buy one from street vendors in the markets. Well, getting one in Philadelphia wasn’t easy at all. First, I was surprised that in English you use the French word crèche to describe it. That was the first piece of evidence that it wasn’t a very American thing. Then we visited like 5 different Christmas stores. They didn’t have it. The last store we visited actually had one: a huge inflatable crèche. And a cold air balloon wasn’t exactly what I was looking for. Then we expanded our search limits and we went to the suburbs. And a crèche we did find, imported directly from Italy, of course. But it was too expensive, I mean extremely expensive. Christmas was coming and I didn’t have a crèche! Then one friend told us to ask a friend of his. She was an Irish Catholic girl, married to an Italian guy (that’s another thing I discovered here: Italians and Irish get along very well!). And she told us about the right place to go! And so we finally got a crèche!

Since Americans usually don’t do anything for Christmas Eve, I started a personal tradition of preparing a huge dinner to share with friends – and then we spend Christmas day with the family. It’s a late dinner because we wait until midnight. But it’s not a hard wait, because we have several antipasti, pasta as a starter, a comforting entrée and dessert. At midnight we put Baby Jesus in his manger, and we exchange gifts. I love to have a special gift for every guest, like a cute Nutcracker, and I always have some panettone to give! After that, we have a good cup of espresso, panettone, panforte and torrone! As you can see, I simply love Christmas! Of course, the first year we invited the Irish-Italian couple who told us where to find our crèche. And they loved our dinner so much that now they started their own tradition of a Christmas Eve dinner with friends.

Posted by Daziano at 8:55 AM | 14 comments  
December 10, 2008

There ain’t no ‘feast of the seven fishes’ in Italy

On my first Christmas in America, my neighbor told me that the feast of the seven fishes was being held in an Italian restaurant next to us. She was really excited about it, but I had no idea what on earth she was talking about. So, I was like ‘Uh?’ and I guess she totally perceived my un-excitement, because she repeated once again her sentence, and now with greater excitement and joy. Then she was really surprised when she had to explain to me that the ‘seven fishes’ was an Italian tradition. And yet it was the very first time in my entire life I had heard about it. After that experience, I found books about the feast of seven fishes with recipes from the Italian market in Philly, I saw signs inviting you to go to the ‘seven fishes’ in churches all around Italian-American neighborhoods in New Jersey, and I even read about it in Wikipedia (even though you should get suspicious when you notice there’s no link for an article in Italian)… So I discovered that for Americans the feast of the seven fishes is supposed to be THE ultimate Italian tradition for Christmas.

Is it really? Well, the true answer is no, it’s not. I tried to be nice and polite with my neighbor so I told her that maybe it was a regional tradition I didn’t know. But the true answer is still the same: there’s no such thing as ‘feast of the seven fishes’ in Italy. Hard to believe for Americans, I know. It’s even hard to believe for Italian-Americans.

So, where did the whole idea come from? I really don’t know. In Italy, every region has its own traditions for Christmas. However, it was pretty general once that on Christmas Eve Italians had a light dinner before going to Church for the Mass of the Vigil at midnight. Strictly speaking, Christmas Eve is supposed to be a fast day for Catholics, but every single Italian thought of ‘la cena di magro’ (the dinner without meat) as a way to prepare for the huge lunch on Christmas day. I know you’re thinking ‘Aha!… so Italians do have a dinner without meat for Christmas Eve after all’. You’re right, but a dinner without meat doesn’t necessarily imply a dinner with fish (and the seven-different-fish-dishes idea is completely strange to me and totally absent in Italy). On the one hand, it is true that fish is perfectly suitable for a dinner without meat: a starter made of smoked salmon or an eel entrée are two popular dishes for Italian cena di magro. But on the other hand, cheese and vegetables are perfectly suitable for a dinner without meat too. In fact, tortellini in brodo (a kind of soup made with tortellini pasta filled with cheese and vegetables) is pretty popular for Christmas Eve in northern Italy. Also this light dinner is a tradition that is disappearing in Italy. Nowadays nobody goes to church anymore (or at least not as it used to be), and the cenone di Natale (huge Christmas dinner) is becoming the new tradition. And for the cenone di Natale all the abundance of the traditional Christmas lunch is permitted: filled capon, pork, lamb, ham and even turkey!
Posted by Daziano at 5:50 PM | 15 comments  
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