Author: Grace Massa Langlois
Publisher: Ulysses Press (2012)
I have a stepfamily who is, in no uncertain terms, Italian. Large gatherings of family in our home are commonplace for any and all events, from the most trivial of birthdays and sports team drafts to the all-out Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve (which also happens to correlate with my stepfather’s birthday on the 23rd). Weeknight meals are almost exclusively Italian fare, although not the “spaghetti and meatballs” and “pizza” so much as rigatoni with rapini and oysters, gnocchi with plain tomato sauce and Parmesan and codfish with spicy peppers and potatoes, Sicilian style. Where my stepfamily hits all the right “traditional” notes in their savoury cooking, sweets and desserts (while definitely enjoyed) are almost exclusively store-bought. From cannoli and cakes to tartufo, if it’s a special event you can bet that somebody paid the local Italian bakery a visit.
While there is nothing wrong with store-bought pastry once in awhile, homemade desserts are almost exclusively better tasting and better for you. The problem arises when tradition comes into play and the old recipes of your nonna’s are either long gone or so outdated that modern appliances and ingredients don’t apply. Enter Grace Massa Langois, with her book Grace's Sweet Life: Homemade Italian Desserts from Cannoli, Biscotti, and Tiramisu to Torte, Tartufi, and Struffoli. The book’s mission is really to build on the passionate blog started by Massa Langois and make those classical Italian treats more approachable for the common cook – and as long as you have the courage of a lion, no dietary restrictions and a large group to feed, it is successful.
This is not simply another “Italian” or “dessert” cookbook. Recipes in Grace’s Sweet Life are complex, multi-step concoctions which, while intended to be as helpful as possible (and the details are, for the more convoluted items) can send the average baker running for the hills. While written in English, the book seems like it’s almost half in Italian thanks to the labelling of each recipe and step in that language first. Quaint, for the first few recipes, but if you’re cooking your way through the multi-page Torta Chiffon all’Arancia con Crema Chantilly all’Arancina e Crema all’Arancia (p. 39) it does get tiresome. Massa Langois also calls for many specialty ingredients (an entire page as to what they are and what they do, however, is thankfully provided (p. 8)). While our local stores and Italian grocery are relatively well stocked, I have yet to find glucose, “lievito vaniglinato”, “vanillina aroma per dolci”, 00 flour or gelatine sheets save by either going into downtown Toronto or ordering online. There is no “resources” page to point would-be cooks to a store for purchase, and many online retailers require far more in shipping charges or quantity than I’m willing to incur.
Grace’s Sweet Life is also not a book for anyone with restrictions on the amount of dairy, nuts (and especially) eggs. Recipes can call for up to a full dozen, and cheese, cream and other dairy is lavishly used. There is a sizeable portion of the book using deep-frying and sugar-caramelizing techniques, which can also be off-putting to those of us nervous around those types of things (I myself am terrified of hot oil) or who are trying to minimize the amount of crispy-fried items in their diets. Granted, the book is not intended to be health food in the least – and I’m sure that the recipes using those ingredients are divine – but they definitely fall into “special occasion only” fare.
Luckily, because there are so many components to each recipe, even the most restricted diets can enjoy some part of the Italian dolce vita. Massa Langois also has some unique methods of preparing some items that can be a boon to any chef, professional or not. For me, the two stars I tried with great success were Bubble Sugar (part of the Torta al Ciccolato e Ciliega recipe (p.69)) and the Raspberry Jam from Crostatine con Frolla all Nocciola, Marmellata di Lamponi, e Crema Ganache al Cioccolato Bianco (p. 133). The Bubble Sugar was simple to make and impressive on its own as a candy or when used as the decoration it is intended to be – I liked that depending on the liqueur used (the alcohol provides the characteristic texture) the final result maintained just the barest hint of that flavour without becoming a “coffee sugar” from Kahlua or “orange bubbles” from Grand Marnier. The Raspberry Jam used the rather ingenious technique of baking the fruit, sugar and lemon juice together on a tray instead of heating up the whole kitchen by using a pot and the stove. I was able to make two batches of it in one afternoon with little work on my part, and the recipe works with any “berry” fruit such as strawberries, cherries and blueberries (I combined the three in my second batch). The only suggestion I would have is to cut down on the sugar a touch. The recipe doesn’t have a lot of sweetener really, considering jams are notorious for large quantities of sugar, but for our tastes batch #1 was just a bit too candy-like. Reducing the amount from ½ to 1/3 of a cup made a big difference, as did adding the zest of a lemon to the pureed mixture.
There are so many mouthwatering recipes in this book that it is impossible to say which one will next come about in my kitchen. One thing’s for sure, come the next Italian family celebration around here, Grace Massa Langlois’ Grace's Sweet Life: Homemade Italian Desserts from Cannoli, Biscotti, and Tiramisu to Torte, Tartufi, and Struffoli will not be far out of reach.