Just give me the recipe, and shut up already!

Sometimes you have to wade through pages of clotted prose to get to the (Tuscan) goods. Plus: A great bread book.


Ann Hodgman
May 19, 2000 8:00PM (UTC)

"GLAD Flexible Straws. See Thru ... For Fun!" shrieks the front of this box of plastic straws. On the back of the box, more shrieking: "Why do kids like to use straws? Because they're fun! Right? Well, we've made GLAD Flexible Straws a whole lot more fun. You've always been able to bend GLAD Flexible Straws, but now you can see through them too! Now you can SEE when that cool drink is going to make its way up that blue stripe on the straw, jump into your mouth, and tickle your tongue! Doesn't that sound like fun?"

Yes, lots.

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Some people don't know when to stop, and Pino Luongo may be one of them. His new book, Simply Tuscan, is wonderful in many ways -- I'll get to that in a little while -- but Luongo does tend to go on. It's not enough for him that we eat and enjoy Tuscan food: We must "convert to Tuscanism." We must stop acting like Americans -- like "New Yorkers in suits" who "swarm in and out of these Towers of Indifference, running like mad dogs from appointment to appointment with pained, stressful looks on their faces." We must, instead, behave like Luongo, who knows how to appreciate the pleasures of the senses. "Some day," he says, "I'm going to walk around calling out to these people: 'When was the last time you took a walk in the park? Have you enjoyed a sunset lately?' ... When it's warm outside, I wear loafers in the Tuscan style, with no socks, even with the best suits."

For a while I amused myself by substituting my own homeland -- Rochester, N.Y. -- whenever I read one of Luongo's pronouncements about Tuscans. "In Rochester, spring is a great time for children." "Here again, I remember the Rochesterian idea of the endless cycle of life." "In Rochester, where there are no barriers between man and nature, we are in touch with the entire world that moves around us." "It's also important to note that the privileges enjoyed by Rochesterians are God-given and not based on having a lot of money." Then I got cranky, and started to rebel. I know Luongo owns restaurants in a jillion cities. But why does he get to be in charge of everything just because he's Tuscan?

Easter is the one and only holiday when good weather is absolutely essential ...

If there's one occasion young men in [the United States] take too seriously, it's meeting their future in-laws ...

Let me be clear about white wine: I don't recommend it as something to drink with a meal ...

Well, Mr. Luongo, you are not the boss of me, and if you didn't know how to write good recipes I wouldn't go near "Simply Tuscan" again. But if you just skip the text, this is a graceful and sensible book -- even if it is set in a font that's designed to look like someone's old Remington. (I guess Tuscans don't like our sterile computer keyboards, either.)

The book offers 20 seasonal menus with recipes that are simultaneously homey, elegant and well suited to American kitchens: grilled potato and fennel salad, caramel rice cake with amaretto, polenta with wild mushrooms and spinach, bay scallops and asparagus risotto, oven-baked leg of pork glazed with chestnut honey, roast lamb with a savory mint gelatin (instead of the horrible, horrible mint jelly that Italians have every right to despise Americans for eating).

There's a fair amount of repetition that should have been caught. An Easter menu calls for a starter that includes hard-boiled eggs and a salad that includes hard-boiled quail eggs. And there are way too many creamy off-white desserts. Panna cotta with strawberries, milk pudding with blueberry compote, and mixed berries with sabayon br{lie all appear within the book's first 40 pages. On Page 59, we get vanilla cream pudding; a couple of chapters later, chestnut semifreddo; a few pages after that, Monte Bianco, a chestnut purie with whipped cream; then the caramel rice cake on Page 169; then a semifreddo with nougat on Page 183; and 20 pages later, rice ice cream with mixed berries sauce. Don't they eat any cookies in Tuscany?

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Suzanne Dunaway's No Need to Knead: Handmade Italian Breads in 90 Minutes -- what does Pino Luongo think of it? I suppose we'll never know, but all that really matters is what I think, and even though it's only May I am already giving "No Need to Knead" the Academy Award for this year's best bread book. For one thing, any book that tells me I don't have to knead is my best friend before I open the cover. I hate kneading bread dough. I don't understand those people who find it soothing and good for the soul; to me, it's maddeningly tiresome work. When it's done, you have to scrape all those scabby flecks of dried dough off the counter, and if you get even a drop of water on the work surface, everything turns to paste.

And now a book that doesn't care about kneading and still produces fantastic results! Dunaway was a home baker until a friend called "to say in so many words that if I did not get my breads on the market, I was crazy -- and then hung up." For some reason Dunaway obeyed, and soon she was making 1,000 loaves a week out of her home kitchen in Los Angeles. Her husband gave up a screenwriting career to pitch in; when their hands gave out, they bought a commercial mixer, hired a baker and created Buona Forchetta Hand Made Breads. Dunaway writes:

The recipes are my own originals and interpretations, and I think people respond to them because they are not like other breads. The crusts are lighter, chewier, user-friendly; the crumb is moist and stays fresh longer than most breads; ingredients are simple and to the point -- no froufrou, as I call it ... The majority of the recipes here evolved from going against the grain, so to speak, in order to achieve the moist, wonderfully textured breads I have eaten for years in Italy and France.

Focaccia is the mainstay of her bakery. Dunaway knows as much about bread chemistry as any artisanal baker, but she explains herself in easy, conversational terms. One reason for her success comes from, as she puts it, maximizing the bread's surface area in relation to its volume. ("Which part of a meat loaf do you love to bite? The soft, steamed inside or the crispy, crunchy crust?") Another reason is that she adds way more water to her dough than conventional bakers do. ("This compensates for the additional surface area and subsequent moisture loss and gives me a nice balance between two extremes.") She then pours these light, wet doughs onto a baking sheet and bakes them in a 500-degree oven to "give a boost to the already risen dough and open up even more texture in the focaccia."

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Also -- and this is one of my favorite touches -- Dunaway doesn't insist on spring water or Italian flour in her breads. I always suspected that these made no difference, and am delighted to see my hunch confirmed. Having dragged home a liter of Roman water and a kilo of Altamura flour on a 17-hour plane trip, Dunaway baked up some bread and discovered that her extra-"Italian" bread was no better than bread baked with tap water and American flour. "Short of having to use rusty water from an abandoned well or desert mirage water, tap water will work just fine in breads unless it has been labeled 'contaminated.'"

And the breads themselves? The book starts out with a focaccia dough that becomes the basis for a chewy ladder-shaped bread called fougasse and a rosemary filoncino. Then it's on to ciabatta, hazelnut-sage filoncino, sourdough caraway rye and pane rustico. From there Dunaway veers back to America with "My Grandmother's Beaten Biscuits," skillet corn bread and sourdough flapjacks, then back to Italy for bruschetta with roasted garlic and Parmesan.

This is an idiosyncratic and charming book, and it should be a mandatory purchase for its pizza dough alone. (Also, there are recipes for dill pickles and Wild Turkey chocolate ice cream -- I said the book was idiosyncratic.) Here's the pizza dough recipe:

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1 teaspoon active dry yeast

1 1/2 cups lukewarm water (85 to 95 degrees)

4 to 4 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

6 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon salt

In a container that pours easily, sprinkle the yeast over the water and stir until dissolved. Put the flour, olive oil, and salt into the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Blend for a few seconds and then add the yeast and water, blending just until the dough pulls away from the side of the bowl. The dough will be slightly sticky to the touch. Dip your fingers into a little olive oil and lift the dough from the bowl, shaping it into a ball. Put the dough in an oiled bowl.

Same-day method: Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the dough rise in a warm place until doubled in volume, about 60 minutes.

Overnight method: After first rise, transfer the dough to a plastic freezer bag and seal tightly, leaving a little air in the bag. Alternatively, ignore first rise completely and place the dough directly in bag. Refrigerate overnight or up to 1 week. The dough will rise in the bag and take on a lovely, sour taste. Let the dough come to room temperature before using.

To shape and prepare pizza: Coat two 13-by-18-inch baking sheets with olive oil. Divide the dough in half and stretch each piece on a baking sheet into a 12-by-6-inch rectangle in the following manner: using your palms and starting from the center of the dough, gently press and stretch the dough outward to form a thin 1/8-inch-thick crust slightly thicker at the edge. Push the dough up around the edges to make a 1/8- to 1/4-inch lip to hold the sauce.

To bake the pizza: Preheat the oven to 525 degrees F. Place the pizza with topping on the lowest rack of the oven and increase the oven temperature to 550 degrees F. This will give an extra boost of heat to the bottom of the pizza and brown it nicely. Bake for 7 to 10 minutes, depending on the thickness of the crust. The crust edges should be well browned and the cheese bubbling and browned. If, when the pizza is done, the bottom seems a little soggy, place the baking sheet on a stove burner over medium heat, moving the pan continually back and forth over the heat and watching carefully until the pizza begins to send off steam. At this point, the bottom should be well browned and the crust crisped. A wood-burning oven would really do the trick, but alas, not many of us have that luxury! By cooking the bottom of the pizza on the stovetop, you duplicate as well as you can the stone floor of a wood-burning oven. This technique works for other dishes as well.


Ann Hodgman

Ann Hodgman is the author of three cookbooks, most recently "One Bite Won't Kill You," and of 40 children's books.

MORE FROM Ann Hodgman

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