Thursday, July 21, 2011

Pint-Glass Bread

I am delighted to welcome this site’s first guest Bunburyist. She is an exceptional actor, writer and editor.

I have been editing my dad’s blog for almost the entire time he has been posting recipes. I love to be in the kitchen with him when he cooks, but until recently I have done very little cooking of my own. When Mom and Dad cook so well, it seems silly to add a bumbling newcomer to the kitchen and until a few weeks ago I lived in a dorm with no kitchen and about the same amount of time. Cooking was completely out of the question.

But soon I will be moving into an apartment which means I need to start cooking for myself unless I plan on subsisting entirely on cereal and toast next year (always a possibility, but certainly not the most exciting option). So this summer, I have been stepping out from behind my pencil and dictionary and doing some stirring, simmering and baking for myself.

Right away, there was one thing I knew I wanted to make. In college, I was starved for really good, crusty bread. Our dining hall offered only pre-packaged, pre-sliced loaves with shelf lives only slightly shorter than Twinkies. After that, it wasn’t enough to come home and buy bread at the store—I wanted to make it myself.

However, jumping into the world of yeast when you’ve hardly ever baked a batch of cookies is hardly a wise move so I had little intention of acting on my urge to bake until I happened on a new cookbook my dad had bought while I was away at college.

The Country Cooking of Ireland [2009] by Colman Andrews is my favorite type of cookbook. It is beautiful (I consider the pictures of cows and Irish countryside alone worth the cost of the book) and filled with information about the culture and history of Ireland and its cooking. It was while reading through this book that I came across a chapter that solved my bread dilemma: soda bread. Dense and crusty enough to make up for a year’s worth of industrial slices of foam, it’s also simple enough for a novice with more enthusiasm than skill and doesn’t require any finicky yeast wrangling.

So I determined to give it a try, still somewhat convinced that disaster would befall. But, amazingly, it turned out! The recipe was simple but immensely satisfying. (Anything that involves shaping your hand into a claw and running it through something sticky can’t help but satisfy your inner five-year-old.) and I got a rush of pride out of successfully baking a loaf of bread that was entirely out of proportion with the difficulty of the recipe.

Suddenly cooking wasn’t just a way to feed myself while away at school studying Oscar Wilde and James Joyce, but something pleasurable and satisfying enough to do simply for the fun of it. And I can’t wait to do more.

This bread was meant to be made by a college student armed only with a pint glass and some sort of bowl (the recipe suggests a wash basin or even the kitchen sink). As I don’t fit the mold of pint-glass wielding collegiates, I used the measurements accompanying the recipe. They worked quite well although they lacked the haphazard charm of the pint glass method.

Pint-Glass Bread
  • 1 pint glass [2 ½ cups/250 g] white flour, preferably Irish or pastry flour, plus more for dusting
  • 1 pint glass [2 ½ cups/250 g] stone-ground whole wheat flour, preferably Irish or Irish-style
  • Enough baking soda to coat the bottom of a pint glass [ ¾ tsp]
  • Enough salt to coat the bottom of a pint glass [ ¾ tsp]
  • Enough butter to coat the bottom of a pint glass [1 tbsp]
  • ¾ pint glass [1 ¾ cups/420 ml] room-temperature buttermilk, plus more as needed

Preheat the oven to 375°F/190°C (Gas Mark 5).

Sift the white flour, whole wheat flour, baking soda, and salt together in a medium bowl and stir together with a fork until they’re well combined. Rub the butter in with your fingers until the mixture resembles bread course bread crumbs.

Form a well in the middle of the flour mixture and pour the buttermilk into the well. Form your hand into a rigid claw and stir the buttermilk into the flour slowly but steadily in a spiral motion, starting in the middle and working outward. The dough should be soft but not too wet or sticky. (Add more buttermilk if necessary.)

Turn the dough out onto a floured board. Flour your hands lightly, then shape the dough into a flat round about 2 in/5 cm high. Cut a deep cross in the top of the loaf with a wet or floured knife, then bake for 45 to 60 minutes, or until nicely browned and the bottom of the loaf sounds hollow when tapped.

Andrews gives an entire page of pointers to help ensure successful bread. Mainly though, you want to make sure not to over-mix the dough and not to undercook the bread.

Resist the urge to cut into the bread until it is entirely cool (I couldn’t the first time); it results in a better texture and the bread is best at room temperature anyway. This bread tastes amazing with honey, good cheese, jam or dipped in soup such as the Potato and Leek posted on this blog.

Saturday, July 2, 2011


This is the second post in a series on homemade Italian liqueurs. Using Maria Pignatelli Ferrante’s Puglia – A Culinary Memoir [2008] as a guide, we began our series by making Rosolio di limone. Next up is Nocino, an ebon liqueur made with immature green walnuts traditionally picked on or around 24 June, the feast day celebrating the Nativity of St. John the Baptist.

A short side-note in Giuliano Bugialli’s Foods of Naples and Campania [2003] sparked my interest in Nocino. Bugialli writes: “Campania produces a walnut liqueur called Nocino that is made in Emilia-Romagna as well. Following the old custom, fresh walnuts that have not yet hardened are marinated—still in the shell—in pure grain alcohol, along with nutmeg, cinnamon and other spices.”

Nocino has a wonderful mythos. Traditionally the liqueur’s green walnuts are gathered—some communities employ tree-scaling, barefooted virgins—on the Feast Day of St. John the Baptist when, most probably, a green walnut’s essential oils are near its zenith. Further, some only use an odd number of walnuts to make Nocino. (There is no consensus on the exact number; I have recipes that call for 25, 29, 33 and 35 walnuts. [I disregard any recipe that calls for an even number of walnuts].)

Ferrante’s Nocino recipe is typical of the dozen or so recipes I have collected over the years. Each of these recipes is slightly different but all are generally a variation on a theme of green walnuts, alcohol and sugar.
  • 25 green, not yet ripe, walnuts, picked between June 20 and June 25, quartered (not shelled)
  • 1 quart alcohol [pure, distilled]
  • 5 cloves
  • ½ cinnamon stick
  • Peel of 1 lemon
  • 2 ½ cups sugar
  • ¾ cup water

(Wear gloves, as these young walnuts are coated with a strong natural dye.) Wash the walnuts and dry them. Put the walnut pieces in a jar with the alcohol, cloves, cinnamon stick, and lemon peel. Seal hermetically and allow to steep for 40 days, shaking up the contents occasionally.

After 40 days, make a syrup in a pot with the sugar and water and boil for a few minutes. Filter the alcohol, discarding the walnuts…and other items, and combine with the cooled syrup. Filter again and transfer to bottles. Seal hermetically. Wait at least 3 months before serving.

Green Walnuts

Perhaps the most difficult part of making Nocino is finding a source for its main ingredient: immature, green walnuts. Walnut trees abound in my corner of the San Francisco Bay Area; I forage my crop from unsprayed trees of neighbors and friends. You can also use the Internet to find farmers that sell green walnuts by mail order.

If local walnuts are available, most recipes advise gathering the green walnuts on 24 June, the Feast Day of St. John the Baptist (and near the date of the Summer Solstice). Ferrante calls for nuts gathered between the 20th and 25th of June. The Ordine del Nocino Modenese, an association in Modena, Italy that promotes local Nocino, recommends a 24 June harvest date, but suggests it is permissible to gather nuts between the 6th and 24th of June. This range speaks to the relationship between Christian and pagan celebrations (in this case the Nativity of St. John the Baptist and Midsummer) and traditional agricultural cycles and foraging seasons. Most likely an immature walnut’s fruit is “ready” on or around the Feast Day of St. John the Baptist, which falls near the Summer Solstice.

Ferrante warns that young walnuts “are coated with a strong natural dye.” Yes, cut green walnuts can stain your hands and clothes an inky black. I do not recommend quartering the walnuts on any valued surface; I use an old wooden cutting board and exercise care when handling the cut walnuts.


Ferrante recommends using “pure, distilled” alcohol. As discussed in my previous Rosolio di limone post, Ferrante calls for a high alcohol content grain spirit such as Everclear. The 151 proof version of Everclear is an excellent solvent for extracting flavors, but it is not readily available (or legal) in many parts of the United States. Alternatively, you can use a high alcohol content vodka. When making a liqueur, the higher the alcohol content of your solvent, the better the extraction of essential oils.


Nocino is typically flavored with cloves, cinnamon and citrus peel (usually lemon or orange). Some Nocino recipes call for a vanilla bean. (I leave out the citrus peel and put in a snip of a vanilla bean.) Occasionally you find modern recipes that add ingredients like roasted coffee beans and juniper berries. If you are a traditionalist, then I direct you once again to the Ordine del Nocino Modenese. With its commitment to preserving and promoting Modenese Nocino, the Order believes “[c]loves and cinnamon are the only suggested flavours to be added, though their use is optional. If they are added, they should be used sparingly so as not to detract from the harmonious walnut taste of the liqueur.”

If you follow Ferrante’s Nocino recipe, your Nocino will be ready to enjoy around mid-December. The Ordine del Nocino Modenese advises infusing the walnuts for at least 60 days, but also suggests filtering Nocino in December. This is also my practice, but expect to find a range of infusion periods. An excellent Sicilian cookbook I recently purchased by Anna Tasca Lanza entited The Heart of Sicily [1993] has a note about infusing Nocino for 40 days in a jar left in the sun. Lanza continues: “Then the brew is filtered and put away until I Morti (All Soul’s Day, November 2), when we drink it to honor the dead.”  A few recipes recommend aging the decanted Nocino for a year before serving. I don’t. After filtering, I decant the dark liquid into a handsome bottle that I keep in my freezer.

I serve Nocino as an after dinner digestif. I also use Nocino as an ingredient in a favorite recipe: Cantucci di Noci e Cannella (Walnut and Cinnamon Cookies) from Biscotti – Recipes from the Kitchen of the American Academy in Rome: Rome Sustainable Food Project [2011] by Mona Talbott and Mirella Misenti.