Did you ever read Pinocchio when you were a child? Did your parents ever threaten your nose would grow at your first lie? And I mean the real Pinocchio, not the Disney-ized version with the cuddly and not so woody puppet, and the grandfatherly Geppetto, but the original fairy tale by Tuscan author Carlo Collodi, which was much darker, as if written in anger: as my friend Luisa likes to point out, the tale runs the gamut of death, threats, lies and punishment, enough to terrorize a poor child for decades to come.
Like all Italian children, I received my first copy of Pinocchio early on, an oversized hard-back with a fire engine red cover and full-page illustrations, that I had to set on the floor to read in some comfort. I had a penchant for dark fairy tales – Bluebeard comes to mind, making me wonder if my parents truly knew what books they were giving me – and the adventures of Pinocchio were particularly satisfying, with their colorful cast of characters and a good fairy to boot. But what grabbed my attention from the start was a culinary detail.
You might remember that to celebrate Pinocchio’s birthday, the Fairy organizes a party and the food she serves to the children is little finger sandwiches buttered on both sides. That decadent “buttered both sides” fueled my imagination – you see, left to my own devices, I would be rather happy to subsist on bread and butter for the rest of my life. And bread buttered on both sides? What kind of heaven would that be?
I mentioned on numerous occasions that my mother held scarce belief in pre-packaged food so, for the mid-afternoon snack, that crucial break to make homework more bearable, I had to be inventive. Some of my most popular choices were ricotta sprinkled with sugar and cocoa powder; prosciutto sandwiches; bread with butter and jam until I graduated to pastry cream and coffee sabayon. Finding friends to come over to share homework and snacks with was never much of a problem. But my favorite was plain bread buttered and sprinkled with sugar – as weird as it sounds, give it a try if you don’t believe me. It’s the simplest and most delicious dessert, provided you start with good bread and fatty and creamy butter.
These days, I can only dream. A handful of nuts, some fruit or a bit of chocolate at most are the only mid-afternoon snacks my butt and thighs will allow. Unless it’s been a particularly productive day and then I will reward my efforts with something sinful and not too cumbersome to prepare. Ganache – the combination of chocolate and cream – is a great and easy filling for a tart. Or, if you can’t be bothered with making a crust, a great and easy addition to ice-cream or cookies. Add some espresso, and it becomes very grown up. Pour it on some strawberries and it’s a semi-healthy snack – my definition of healthy being at times rather elastic. Moreover, it keeps pretty much indefinitely so you can tell yourself you won’t abuse it, you will have a little over time.
Italian has a proper word for the mid-afternoon break, a word most children think of with affection: merenda, from the Latin “merere”, meaning to merit, to gain. Merenda is not a given, like lunch or dinner but, rather, something earned. Another, more satisfying way, to look at an indulgence.
14 oz semisweet chocolate (400 grams)
1 ts vanilla extract
1/4 C sugar (you can omit if you like your chocolate really dark)
3/4 C heavy cream
A pinch of salt
- Combine all the ingredients in a saucepan and melt on low heat, stirring constantly. You can also do this in the microwave.
- Once the chocolate is nearly melted, take it off the heat and whisk vigorously until smooth and shiny.
- Pour it in a pre-baked pie crust and let cool for a few hours for a luscious tart.
- Alternatively, pour it over ice-cream, dip some simple cookies in it, or strawberries or chill it, roll it and make impromptu truffles.
- By adding corn syrup, the ganache will keep soft but I don’t like to do that. Just simmer it over boiling water when you need to re-use it (or nuke it in the microwave).
All images C&S. Pinocchio book cover found in the public domain