Passport to Italy: An Evening with The Borgias

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

To celebrate the first episode of the Borgias this past weekend, I decided to research some medieval Italian meals. Admittedly, when I think "medieval" I immediately think England, then France. Maybe Spain. I think roasted chicken, beef stews, and pastry. I was so curious to see what the medieval Italians did. Was it similar? Vastly different? How far does it depart from modern Italian cuisine, or what we consider Italian food today?

I was shocked.

It does not deviate on either end. It's both as medieval as English roasted chicken using the very same spices and preparations, and as "modern" as a bowl of macaroni or spaghetti. I am fascinated. Italian cuisine has stayed very much unchanged from 500+ years ago and I'm so happy for that. With an emphasis on using fresh, quality, preferably home-grown ingredients, simple dishes executed perfectly was the crux of Italian cuisine back then as it is today. Braises, stews, roasts, sausages, pastas all that we love today were also enjoyed in the same way by the Italians of 1500. So to celebrate the Borgias much in the same fashion as someone would in the time of the Borgias, I prepared this meal.

The Menu
Artichokes Old & New
Roman Macaroni
Pizza (for dessert)

We started out with some artichokes I had on hand from my local farm delivery. I wanted something simple and easy to prepare so I could focus my efforts on the pizza recipe, so I chose to do again my recipe for Artichokes Old & New. You'll notice below the dipping sauce was a lot lighter; I used apple cider vinegar this time instead of balsamic. Love it but prefer balsamic for this dish.

Then the main course was a pasta dish. During the time of the Borgiask, Marco Polo had visited Asia already, bringing back with him pasta, ginger, and various other spices. The Italians took to the pasta very quickly, adapting it to use with their own local ingredients to obvious success. I don't know why, but I was surprised to first see any pasta recipes at all during the period. I was amazed how quickly the Italians not only accepted a foreign dish like noodles, but how quickly they understood it and adapted it. It's truly remarkable if you really think about it. Second, I was surprised to see how unchanged the pasta recipe from 500 years ago was compared to today's pasta dishes. I elected to do this very simple recipe that is considered classic Italian fare today: good pasta, good olive oil, good parmesan cheese. That's it. The cuisine that I know and love today, emphasizing fresh ingredients prepared simply but executed perfectly was the same exact philosophy of Italian cooks 500 years ago.

And I love that.

I relish in being able to participate in unchanged traditions, a fiber connecting me with ancestors past and people I didn't know or met in a place I've never been. And such is this pasta dish!

Here's a delightfully simple and unchanged recipe for simple macaroni from The Neapolitan Recipe Collection by Terence Scully.

"Macharoni Romaneschi.
Piglia bella farina he fane pasta uno pocho piu grossa che quella dele Lasagne, et rivoltala in torno ad uno bastone, et taglia la pasta larga uno digito che resta como una stringo; et metteli a cocere in bono brodo ho in altra aqua secondo el tempo; et fa prima bulire l'aqua cum uno pocho de sale avante che li mette dentro li macharoni; et se li cocerai in aqua, mettelli dentro butiro freshco."  --circa 15th century, Naples

And the translation:

"Roman Macaroni. Out of fine flour make a dough that is a little larger than for lasagna, and wrap it around a stick, and cut the dough the dough the width of a finger so that it stays like a ribbon; set it to cook in good broth or in some other liquid depending on the season; let the liquid boil first with a little salt before putting the macaroni in it; and if they are cooking in water, add a little fresh butter to it."


For my interpretation, I used boxed pasta because honestly, I have two small kids and a house to maintain. I was planning on asking The Hubsters to make pasta from scratch for this, but alas work intervened once again and De Cecco had to step in and man up in the pasta department. I also used both butter and olive oil. And then tossed it with some freshly chopped garlic, a small sprig of rosemary, and finely ground Parmesan-Romano and shaved Parmesan.

Here is my adapted recipe:

Macaroni Romano In The Style of Medieval Italy
1/2 lb dried pasta -- your choice
2 Tbsp kosher salt
1/4 cup good quality extra virgin olive oil
2 Tbsp good butter
1 clove garlic, minced
1 Tbsp fresh rosemary leaves, left whole
1/3 cup finely ground Parmesano-Romano
1/4 cup shaved Parmesan cheese

Bring a pot of water to a boil. When boiling, season the water with the salt. Add the pasta and cook to package directions. Drain pasta. In the same pot the pasta boiled in, add the oil, better, garlic, rosemary, and drained pasta and toss to coat well. Add the cheeses and serve.
Now that appetizer and main dish were consumed, it was time for dessert! Here I was most surprised. Shocked and fascinated would be more accurate actually.

When we today think Italian we think pizza, right? Well, pizza was developed in Naples. So when I found a recipe for medieval napolize pizza, I jumped at the chance. Imagine my shock when I read it: pastry crust, rose water, dates, currants, sugar, paste. Huh?? Where's the tomato? The basil? The motherfuckingcheese for crying out loud???? Oh this is a DESSERT PIZZA.

I'll let you digest that for a second.

One fabulously popular medieval Italian dessert was a pizza using not the yeasty dough we know and love and often bicker about which version is best from Chicago to New York (I still say Connecticut, by the way), but rather a pastry dough more like pie crust called "royal pastry." And it was topped with a paste made of pulverized dried fruits, nuts, and sugar that was spread like the tomato sauce today. And instead of pepperoni or basil they'd use dried up cookies much like miranges.


Here's the actual recipe with its translation from this fascinating website.

"Per fare torta con diverse materie, da Napoletani detta pizza. Cap CXXI

Habbisi oncie sei d’amandole ambrosine monde, & quattr’oncie di pignoli ammogliati mondi, & tre oncie di datoli freschi prive dell’anime, e tre oncie di fichi secchi, tre oncie di zibibbo senz’anime, & ogni cosa pestici nel mortaro, sbruffandole alle volte d’acqua rosa, di modo che venga come pasta, giungansi con esse materie, otto rossi d’ova fresche crude, oncie sei di zuccaro, un’oncia di cannella pista, un’oncia, e mezza di mostaccioli Napoletani muschiati fatti in polvere, quattro oncie d’acqua rosa, e fatta che sarĂ  d’ogni cosa in una compositionne, habbisi la tortiera onta con un sfoglio di pasta reale, & il tortiglione sfogliato incirca non troppo grosso, & mettasi la compositione in la tortiera, mescolata con quattro oncie di butiro fresco, facendo ch non sia piu alta d’un dito, & senza esser copera facciasi cuocere al forno, & servasi calda, & fredda a beneplacito. In essa pizza si puo mettere d’ogni sorte condite."

Translation:  "To make a tart with various things, by the residents of Naples called pizza. Chapter 121. Have six ounces of peeled ambrosia almonds, four ounces of peeled soaked pine nuts, and three ounces of fresh dates with the seeds removed, three ounces of dried figs, three ounces of raisins without seeds, and grind everything together in a mortar, sprinkling every so often with rosewater, so that it becomes a paste, add to these things eight fresh raw egg yolks, six ounces of sugar, an ounce of ground cinnamon, an ounce and a half of Naples biscotti with musk, made into powder, four ounces of rose water. And make of all these things a filling. Have a greased pie plate lined with a sheet of royal pastry, and with not too large layered twisted pastry decorations around the rim. Put the stuffing into the tart, mixed with four ounces of fresh butter. Make it so that it isn’t any higher than a finger and without a (pastry) cover put to cook in the oven. Serve this hot or cold as one pleases. In this pizza one can put any sort of confit."

Note: the ingredients for royal pastry are: flour, sugar, butter, rose water and salt. Naples biscotti are a almost meringue type confection of sugar, flour and eggs, baked twice until crisp. The probably provide both flavoring and a binding agent for this dish.

And here is the recipe I myself adapted from this original and translation. Using dates, dried currants, almonds, and spices I tried to recreate the paste. I also made the pastry dough quickly in my food processor.

Medieval Pizza
for the royal pastry:
1 cup flour
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 stick cold unsalted butter, cubed
3-5 Tbsp rose water

for the filling:
1 cup whole almonds
4 large dates, seeds removed
1 cup raisins
1 cup dried currants
pinch of salt
1 egg yolk
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
about 1/8 cup rose water

Combine the flour, sugar, salt, and butter in a food processor and pulse until butter is the size of peas. Add the rose water and mix until a dough ball is formed. Remove dough, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until cold, 30 minutes.

While the dough cools, prepare the filling. Place the almonds, dates, raisins, currants, and salt in the food processor (no need to clean it from the pastry dough work). Pulse until everything is ground finely, like you would if you were making pesto. Add the egg yolk and cinnamon and pulse again to mix in. Then removing the feeder tube above, turn the mixer on and while it's mixing, slowly add the rose water until eveyrthing comes together in a paste. You're looking for the consistency of peso here. Once combined and the desired consistency is achieved, set aside.

Take the pastry dough out and roll it out on a floured surface. Gently form the rolled out dough into your tart pan (or whatever pie pan you are using). Trim off excess dough from the sides, then fill it in with the fruit paste. Smooth out the top and bake in oven for about 30 minutes or until pastry dough is golden brown on the edges and the filling is puffed up a little and set. Let stand 10 minutes before slicing.

I have to be honest, this wasn't my most favorite. I can say we should all lay down and thank the South Americans and the Spanish for bringing chocolate into our lives. Because if we had to eat desserts like this, then we'd always end the meal with cheese. The flavors were interesting and the use of rose water made for an incredibly aromatic dish. It really reminded me of this peculiar Middle Eastern dessert my grandfather would very occasionally bring us when I was very young. Maybe that's why I didn't care for this pizza that much, because I hated that other dessert. The Hubsters seemed to enjoy this though. And I posted it simply for the historical relevance and shock of being the first real pizzas. That said, I'm not abandoning the project and think I could work with this. It needs just a few more tweeks, some different fruit and nut combinations perhaps, to make it truly a lovely dessert pizza. Stay tuned!

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