Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Alessandra’s Crostata

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If you’re lucky - if you’re really, really lucky, someone will enter your life who is capable of imparting to you what’s really important on this earthly planet we inhabit.  Not because of something she told you, but because of the magical way she had of living her life.

Those of you who follow this blog know that I lost my husband and brother within the last few months. At this risk of alienating readers who are fatigued from what may seem like a ongoing obituary column, I ask those readers to proceed directly to the bottom of this post where you will find the most delectable crostata recipes ever.

February 2011 226 But to move straight to the recipes would be to miss reading about a truly one-in-a-million person who affected the lives of thousands of people in our community. That person, the same person who also is responsible for the crostata recipes you see here, is my friend Alessandra. Alessandra smiling I’ve written briefly about her before, when I posted her recipe for gnocchi alla romana. Everything I said about her then is true ten times over, and it’s worth reiterating now because. . . well, because as difficult it is to write it, it’s even more difficult to accept it, but the sad and irrevocable truth is that the generous heart that was Alessandra’s hallmark also failed her last week.

When I first met her nearly 30 years ago, she taught an Italian literature class at the local adult school. Students in the class, some of whom enrolled for 20 years in a row, were drawn by her gentle but expert teaching style. She had a way of making the most reticent student join in the discussion of works by Pirandello, Manzoni or other Italian authors.

She was the “heart and soul” of the Italian cultural organization where we both served as board members. Alessandra was responsible for returning vitality to the organization after its history as a settlement house for Italian immigrants in the early part of the 20th century. There was rarely a contentious moment at any board meeting, partly because she knew so well how to listen, and come up with solutions to a problem.

Alessandra and Lidia She served on other boards in town too, not as a figurehead, but digging deep and pitching in gladly with full force when help was needed, whether it was cooking for a fund-raising auction (people at a local nursery school would line up to bid for her artichoke lasagna sometimes paying more than $300) or spear-heading the creation of a yearly quilt auction for the school. During her lifetime, she made and gave away more than 20 quilts, all exceptional and all crafted with love.

While her domestic talents would have put Martha Stewart to shame, she was about much more than cooking, stitching and household activities, holding down a number of jobs outside the home over the years, including as community relations director for a large law firm, an administrator for a theological institute, and as liaison for Princeton University for a villa it owned on Italy’s Lake Como.

There are so many more accomplishments I could cite, but she would get annoyed at me knowing I’ve listed even the ones above. Anyone who really knew her also knew that titles meant little to her and she was as self-effacing as they come. She lived her life simply, preferring the humble to the ornate, the quiet to the noise. She found beauty and joy in the domestic arts, but more importantly in the people who surrounded her – not only her beautiful family – a husband, three children and eight grandchildren, and her friends, but even those with whom she had a casual acquaintance. Whether you were a member of her weekly Italian chit-chat group and knew her for 40 years or whether you just moved to town and knew her for only two weeks, she always made time for you and made you feel special. Those of us who were her friends feel truly blessed to have had her in our lives.

But don’t take it from me – see for yourself how thoughtful she was, how insightful she was, how giving she was, by reading the following excerpt  from one of her journals. Although she spoke perfect English, I include the original written in Italian, as well as a translation.

Da anni, di quando in quando, mi pongo il problema di cosa sia piu’ importante nella vita non per il puro piacere della teoria, ma perche’ credo sia molto importante avere un punto fermo da cui e a cui muovere. Ne ho cambiati alcuni, perche’ dopo un po’ di tempo mi si rivelavano inferiori ad un altro. Mi sembra, da un po’ di tempo, di essermi stabilizzata su questo valore come il cardine principale:  l’amore, e piu’ di quello che si receve, e’ importante quello che si riesce a dare agli altri, a tutti gli altri. Sbaglio?”

From time to time, I have asked myself what is most important in life – not for the sake of theorizing – but because I feel it is important to have a guiding principle. I changed it several times, since after a while one seemed inferior to another. But for some time now, I gravitate around this cardinal point: love – more than what we receive, the love that we give to others, to all others. Am I wrong?”Alessandra b&w treeAlessandra 

A beauty in every sense of the word, who leaves behind a legacy of love in each and every person she met. Ciao bella.

And now for her crostata recipes. There are two and they are slightly different. Both are truly delicious so just take a dartboard and pick either of them.

The first one was given by Alessandra to our mutual friend Ellie, over an afternoon filled with friends and a crostata demonstration by Alessandra. It is topped by the traditional criss-crossed strips of dough on the top. Eleanor gave me a hint that freezing the dough strips for a few minutes makes them easier to maneuver over the filling.

February 2011 278 The second recipe was given by Alessandra to Cristina, another friend and a vivacious, transplanted Roman who conducts cooking classes in her home. She invited me to join the class last week when she dedicated the recipes to Alessandra, cooking foods from the Veneto region of Italy, where Alessandra was born. Cristina gave the crostata a more non-traditional border, resembling the sun –  a most apropos reminder of someone whose star will shine forever in our hearts.

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Alessandra’s Crostate

Printable recipes here

Crostata No. 1 (from Ellie via Alessandra)

Makes two 8-or 9-inch tarts or crostate

  • 1 1/2 sticks of butter, (12 Tablespoons) at room temperature
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 whole egg
  • 1 egg yolk (save egg white)
  • pinch of salt
  • 3 cups flour
  • 1/3 cup to 1/4 cup sherry
  • a few teaspoons of ice water, if necessary
  • fruit preserves, warmed to spreading consistency

or for one crostata:

  • 1 stick butter (8 tablespoons)
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 egg yolk, (save egg white)
  • pinch of salt
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1/8 cup sherry
  • a few teaspoons of ice water, if necessary
  • fruit preserves, warmed to spreading consistency

Place flour and sugar into food processor and pulse for a few seconds. Add the butter in small pieces and pulse again, until it resembles coarse sand. Add the egg(s) and sherry to the food processor, pulsing until the mixture starts to form a ball. Add a little ice water, a teaspoon at a time, if necessary. If you don’t have a food processor, mix by hand with pastry cutter or spoon. Let it rest for about 1/2 hour.

Divide the dough into 3/4 for the bottom and 1/4 for the strips. Roll the bottom onto a floured surface and fit it into a buttered tart pan, letting any excess hang over the edge.
Fill the crust with jam. Roll the remaining 1/4 of the dough on a floured surface and cut into strips. Place them lattice-fashion over the jam, attach them to the dough along the rim, then trim the edges of the crostata. Bake in a 375 degree oven for about 25 to 30 minutes until the dough is golden brown. I place the crostata on a cookie sheet that has been preheated in the oven to 425 degrees, then lower it immediately to 375 degrees. It helps ensure the bottom crust is cooked thoroughly. Eleanor likes to bake the empty shell for a few minutes at 375 degrees, then add the preserves and top it with the strips. Try it either way and see what works for you. The results depend not only on the recipe but also the type and size pan you use. Eleanor uses an 8-inch pan, but I use a 9-inch tart pan and it works fine too.

Crostata No. 2 (from Cristina via Alessandra)

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 stick and 3 Tablespoons melted, but slightly cooled butter
  • 1 whole egg
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 shot glass of grappa, liqueur, wine or other alcohol
  • fruit preserves, warmed to spreading consistency

Prepare the dough similar to above recipe, but if you want to make a decorative border like Cristina’s, do not divide the dough into two parts. Make one round disk and roll out between two sheets of waxed paper. Place over a pie plate that has a “lip” on it. then take a butterknife and make cuts all along the rim. Take every other “flap” and flip it in toward the jam. Cristina also used two different kinds of preserves to create the “sun” effect.

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  1. I'm so sorry to hear that. Alessandra was a beautiful woman.

    That crostata is absolutely splendid!



  2. Linda I am so sorry for your have had way too many of those of late.
    This is a beautiful tribute to someone who seemed like a wonderful friend...from someone is was and is a wonderful friend. Both are far and few between and if we have just one true friend in our lives we are lucky.
    Warm hugs to you...

  3. What a wonderful tribute. I feel like I know just what a special person she was. I'm so sorry for your loss and I hope you are doing alright. At any rate-the crostatas are gorgeous and I will definitely make on of them.

  4. Hi Linda - I am so sorry about the loss of your beautiful friend. You have written such a lovely tribute to her.
    Even through all your losses, you seem to be a very fortunate woman to have been surrounded by such extraordinary people. Wishing you peace.
    P.S. I adore the sunshine crust...

  5. I am so sorry you lost such a wonderful friend, Linda. I think Alessandra's beautiful journal message is a testimony to the fact that life is all about love. You've shown us all through your strength over the past few months that expressing love daily in our lives for a husband, brother and friend, can help us carry on when we lose them to this world. May all the beautiful memories of these special people sustain you always.

    Alessandra's crostate looks beautiful! The crusts are a work of art!

  6. Linda, I am sorry you have had to share more poignant memories about someone who left you too soon! I did not know her well, but my heart went out to you when I heard this latest news, as I knew that was yet another blow during this hard winter. What a gorgeous photo of Alessandra in her youth (that hair!); she retained much the same look throughout her lifetime, but always softer and more loving with each year. And of course our food memories of her will live on and on. Warm thoughts, Faith

  7. Mi spice per la perdita della tua amica Alessandra. Nel nostro cuore rimangono impressi i ricordi delle persone care che ci hanno lasciato. La sua crostata è favolosa.Un abbraccio Daniela.

  8. I am not making the headway I had hoped in learning Italian but had to read the entry in Italian anyway - for the beauty of the sounds. And then I was able to read it for the beauty of the entry. And she was not at all wrong! This is a sweet celebration of love.

    I had been reading that jam crostada's are one of the earliest Italian recipes to have been written down (by Pellegrino Artusi?) and have been interested in making one. Now I have a few lovely choices. Kismet.

  9. What a lovely, lovely tribute to a wonderful friend of yours. Your love for her clearly shines in the way you describe her life. As for the crostata... it would be my honor (and joy) to make something as lovely as this. I pick the top one, because the lattice work is so lovely. I never tire of your tributes, because you have a gift of writing. Blessings.

  10. There are so few people in the world with such spirit and vitality like Alessandra possessed and I can imagine how she will be missed by all who knew her. Your tribute was incredible.

  11. Wow, a beautiful recipe from a beautiful person. And every time you make this, she'll be with you again...

  12. So may of our wonderful memories are connected to food and the loved ones we shared them with. This is a lovely tribute to your Alessandra.

  13. Linda, thank you for sharing your deep love and memories of your husband, brother and friend throughout these difficult months. I have so much respect for the way you love all of the people in your life.

  14. What a beautiful tribute Linda, I can't help but think of how much your life has been blessed to be surrounded by such extraordinary people like your friend Alessandra. Through all the heartbreak you have been through and shared with us recently, I myself have learned a valuable lesson, cherish every single minute with those you love,especially all the happy times you share because none of us know what the next day will bring!

  15. Oh Linda, I'm so sorry for the loss of your wonderful friend. True friends are few and far between. God has not only blessed you with a wonderful husband and life partner, but also a loving brother and true friend. My heart goes out to you and your family. Through all of this sorrow, I know you feel truly blessed to have been an important part of their lives and on behalf of all of your avid blog readers, we feel truly blessed to be able to have you in ours. My thoughts are with you.

  16. So sorry Linda! Thanks for sharing your wonderful friends recipes. What a nice tribute to her!

  17. Absolutely beautiful crostata and an absolutely beautiful post to honor your friend. Thanks for sharing, I appreciate reading your open and honest posts...not to mention great recipes.

  18. I didn't even read the recipe. I absorbed all the beautiful tribute you did her and then the delicate yet powerful words she wrote.
    I'll leave the recipe for another time.
    What a gorgeous all around person.
    Ciao Alessandra and thank you for keeping Italy's culture so high in America for the past 40 years. People like you are what prove we're not simply pizza, sun, sea but also profound LOVE for people, art, culture and our beloved Italia.
    Thank you Linda for sharing all these wonderful people with us.

  19. I am so sorry to hear that you have suffered yet another loss of a dear loved one. Your tribute is just beautiful and has left me wishing that I had known Alessandra personally. Thank you for sharing her recipes.

  20. Wonder why I just read this now.
    Oh boy.
    The crostata is as beautiful as Alessandra.
    Looking forward to spring and good things.

  21. I'm sorry to hear that after big losses recently, you have to bear another one. But I'm sure sweet memories of them all will keep you company.

  22. Your heart must be so heavy, Linda, I am so sorry for the loss of your dear and beautiful friend, Alessandra. What a remarkable woman she must have been. I would be honored to make that crostata in her memory. Stay strong - you've had an unbelievable tough few months. Sending hugs your way.

  23. I'm very sorry Linda. My condolences to the loss of your dear, talented and beautiful friend.

    Your tributary post will undoubtedly make her spirit shine.

  24. Alessandra was an amazing woman, I enjoyed reading about her and you sharing her recipe-this post is even more special to me because my 22 year old daughter is named Alessandra - I know I picked that name for a reason now!

  25. Mia cara amica, I am so sorry to hear about the losses that you have had most recently in your life. I am happy that you were so blessed to have such beautiful people in your life. I try to look at it from that point of view in the midst of grief, to help find some solace. Since I am one of your newest readers, I didn't know until today as I was perusing through your blog posts. I hope that you find healing in the ways that you know that are best for your soul. I will treasure this crostata recipe whenever I prepare it. I also wanted to you to know that I kindly thank you for your honorary inclusion of my blog on your're certainly on mine, as well as listed in my extensive (and continually growing) Italian links and blogs. Ciao, baci e' amore! Roz