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#IWD2021 • Words/images: Heidi Swift

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The house Fina rules is a modest rambler in San Jose, California that has as many kitchens as it does bedrooms (three total—the main kitchen; the garage kitchen for dirtier tasks like frying; and the outdoor kitchen featuring a wood-fired brick oven and grilling spit that Sal and his father built by hand). Every floor surface in the house is covered with tile except for the special front room, which has glistening hardwood. This room is filled with 20 years worth of Italian wedding favors and is only used once a year on Christmas morning for the purpose of opening presents.

Sunday dinner is a sacred affair starting at 2:30 p.m. after she and Angelo return from church (God help you if you try to negotiate the start time for the sake of getting in a long bike ride!) After Angelo gives the signal (“Buon Appetito!”) dinner starts with pasta and always includes an argument about which glass container holds the pecorino and which is the parmesan. Once we have that sorted out, we immediately engage in an argument about which cheese is superior (pecorino, obviously). This is followed by moaning over the homemade sugo and a delicate handmade pasta selection. The rest of the meal unfolds according to script, with intermittent bursts of lively, high-volume conversation that Sal continues to claim is not yelling.

In the midst of these animated exchanges Papa and I drink his homemade wine, paying close attention to keep each other’s glasses halfway full. At some point, without fail, we begin to talk about whatever meal is coming next—how we’ll make panelle (chickpea fritters) for breakfast or maybe make a frittata out of the leftover homemade ricotta cheese (mix the soft cheese with an egg and pan fry). The main course is followed by salad, which is followed by fruit, which is followed by dessert, which is accompanied by very short espresso shots. As the event wraps up, Papa begins to whistle or—if we’re lucky—to sing. That’s when you know the meal is officially over.

In this house, food is the language of love and passion—the place where we come together in conversation and celebration. The food is simple and unpretentious: fresh ingredients lovingly prepared according to tradition. At the heart of every meal there is a loaf of crusty golden-brown bread, crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside. When Fina is feeling generous, dessert is cannoli: deep fried, crunchy tubes of pastry filled with her homemade ricotta, which has been sweetened with sugar and tiny chocolate bits.

After several years of trying to convince her to let me document her recipes, I finally got her to agree. I’ve written them here as they appear in her handwritten book (aside from translating Italian words to English)—a funny mix of grams, kilos, teaspoons and tablespoons. It’s the reflection of an immigrant now more than 30 years an American citizen who still lives her life with one foot planted firmly in the old country. We cooked together over two days during a long weekend with Fina’s oldest daughter Rosalia interpreting, spelling words and clarifying things for me as she waited for her impossibly large rollers to transform her hair into an impossibly large work of art.

Buon Appetito!

Cannoli Shells
The dough for these delicious shells is made with wine—no wonder I love them so much! The process is almost identical to making homemade pasta: bring a dense dough together, press into long flat strips through a pasta machine, cut out circular pieces and place around forms. Finally, deep fry. Sizzle sizzle crunch.

1/2 kg flour
50g Crisco
50g sugar
10g baking chocolate
187.5g  (Your choice: Marsala,
white wine, doesn’t matter. Fina
uses a homemade wine made
from Moscat grapes)
2 tsp honey
1 egg white
1 liter oil for frying (or as needed)

Mix dry ingredients in bowl and cut in the shortening until it is in pieces no larger than peas. Begin by gradually mixing the wet ingredients into the flour (use a fork or your fingertips) until the dough starts to form. When the dough gets raggy and starts to take shape, pull it out and put it on a floured surface.

Knead the dough as you would bread dough. Continue until the dough is smooth, about 7 minutes. (If it’s too dry, add a little more wine; too wet, adjust by throwing a little more flour into the mix.) The dough will come together slowly. When ready, it will be moist but firm.

Cut the dough into 5 pieces and form each into a ball about the size of a hamburger bun. Flatten each ball with the palm of your hand until it’s about 1/2 inch thick.

Put each piece through the pasta machine starting at the widest setting and progressing until you’ve reached the thinnest setting. You should have a long (4 or 5 feet) flat piece of cannoli dough when you’re done. (Alternately, use a rolling pin for this step.)

Lay your dough strip out on a floured surface and cut out circles about 4-5 inches in diameter. Fina uses a piece of circular cardboard as a guide.

Whip up the egg white then use it as the glue to seal or glue the cannoli shut after you put it on the form. You can buy special cannoli forms but Fina uses sections of aluminum pipe that Angelo cut down for her with a hacksaw.

Heat oil in a heavy pan (dutch oven or similar works great to hold heat and maintain temperature), bringing it to about 375 degrees. Fry shells on the tubes a few at a time for 4 to 5 minutes, until golden. Use tongs to turn as needed. Carefully remove using the tongs, and place on a cooling rack set over paper towels. Remove the tubes when the shells are cool enough to handle. Shells can be kept in an airtight container for up to two months.

Important! Don’t fill your shells until just before you’re ready to eat them. Filling shells too far ahead of time leads to soggy cannoli, and nobody likes soggy cannoli.

Homemade Ricotta & Filling
You could buy ricotta from the store, but Fina’s recipe is so incredibly simple and fast, you might as well experience the unmatched ecstasy of fresh, hot, soft cheese. Be sure to eat a spoonful while it’s still steaming (on top of a piece of crunchy bread, naturally). Now that you have a stash of creamy, steamy ricotta, it’s time to make the filling for your shells. Like many wonderful ingestibles, it’s really simple: just add sugar.

Making the Ricotta
1 gallon milk
1 pint buttermlik
1 quart half and half
1 tsp salt

Heat the milk and other ingredients on low-medium. Add salt. (You can start the burner on high then move it to low but be careful not to scald the milk.)

Stir occasionally (not obsessively) so the milk doesn’t stick to bottom of pan.

Take the temperature slowly up to 180 degrees—this should take 15 minutes or more. After it reaches temperature, it will start to slowly thicken and separate—curds of cheese will begin floating to top.

Use a slotted spoon to skim the top, removing the cheese from the liquid and transferring to a draining basket (lining a collander with cheesecloth works well). This recipe should give you 6 or 7 cups of fresh ricotta.

Making the Ricotta Filling
500g ricotta
150g powdered sugar

Mix the cheese and sugar together in food processor to get it really creamy and smooth

If desired, add tiny chocolate chips in afterward (with a spoon).

Use pastry bag (no tip) to fill the shells filling one half and then the other half to ensure the filling reaches all the way to the middle.

Use a sifter to sprinkle the cannoli with powdered sugar.

Serve and delight!

Fina’s Amazing Everyday Bread
Along with huge drums of olive oil and 6 old barrels full of homemade wine, this bread is what keeps the Bondi household going. It’s perfectly crunchy on the outside and soft in the middle with a beautiful golden-brown color. Fina makes it in large batches (this recipe will make about four small loaves) and freezes the excess. A few minutes in the toaster oven and frozen loaves are almost as good as new. That said, there’s nothing that compares to ripping one of these babies apart while it’s fresh out of the oven, steam erupting as you tear it in two.

1 kg flour
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp yeast
500ml warm water
1 tsp sugar
1 egg
1/2 cup milk

Mix warm water (not hot!), sugar, and yeast. Whisk.

Put flour and salt in the bowl of the stand mixer. Start mixing (low-med speed) with the dough hook attachment and slowly add in the water mixture. The dough will come together slowly and should be moist—slightly sticky but firm.

Once the dough is combined, add olive oil and mix 2-3 more minutes. Stop it and scrape the bottom of the bowl about halfway through.

Form a ball, place in bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let rise for one hour. To speed process, you can set in oven to prevent drafts. Tip: If you want to aid the process, turn oven to the warm setting for maybe 5 minutes prior to putting the dough in. Turn the oven off then place the dough inside—this gives the dough a dark, warm place to rise without overdoing it.

The dough will double or triple in size. When ready, pull it out onto a floured surface and cut into small pieces, about the size of a tennis ball. Roll pieces into long ropes and braid together. To form a traditional wreath shape, curve the braided bread and then cut the edges at each braid fold, pulling the pieces out to form “leaves.”

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Mix the egg with the milk and whisk for 2 minutes. Then use your hand or a brush (the hand is more precise and gives more even coverage) to coat the top of the bread with the egg mixture before cooking. Once coated, sprinkle the top of the bread with sesame seeds.

Bake for 25 minutes, switching oven position about halfway through (loaf should spend about half the time on the low rack and half the time on the middle rack).

From issue 11. Buy it here.